The Time And Place For Spontaneity
The deaths of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron's sons, teach us the value and also danger of spontaneous religious expression.
Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.
This week, we read the portion of Shemini, which means "the eighth." It refers to the eighth day of the opening of the Tabernacle, which was actually its first real functioning day, after seven days of special inaugural rituals performed by Moses, Aaron, and the other priests.
On this 'official opening day,' Moses commands Aaron and the people to bring sacrifices to the Tabernacle, "for today God will appear to you," which is, after all, the point of the Tabernacle.
Aaron and his sons prepare the animal sacrifices as they are commanded, and as hoped for, "…the glory of God was shown to the entire nation. And a fire went out from before God and consumed the burnt offering and the fats which were on the altar, and the entire nation saw, and celebrated, and fell on their faces."
This moment, the climax of so much work and ritual, is what the Tabernacle was all about: the palpable presence of God, experienced by the entire people. The feeling one gets when reading this section is--it worked! They did it! All that effort paid off, and the people really experienced God's presence.
A Strange Fire
Unbelievably, tragically, what happens next is this:
"Now Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his pan and placed in it fire, and placed on it incense, and brought it before the Lord; a strange fire which he had not commanded them. And a fire went out from before the Lord and consumed them and they died before God. And Moses said to Aaron: this is what God was referring to when he said 'with those close to me I will be sanctified, and before the entire nation I will be honored', and Aaron was silent."
For centuries, commentators have debated the meaning of this story. What was the sin of Nadav and Avihu, what was the 'strange fire' which they offered, and why did they die because of it? What does Moses mean when he says “this is what God was referring to when he said ‘with those close to me I will be sanctified, and before the entire nation I will be honored?’” How could such a tragic event sanctify and honor God, and why did it happen on the joyous day of the opening of the Tabernacle?
I would like to focus on one specific aspect of this difficult story: What was Moses talking about when he said to Aaron, "This is what God was referring to when he said 'with those close to me I will be sanctified?'" When did God say this, and what kind of sanctification did he mean?
Rashi quotes a Midrash, which appears in the Talmud, which elaborates on Moses's words. According to this Midrash, back in Exodus, along with the original commandment to build the Tabernacle, God said that the Tabernacle would be hallowed by His glory. At the time, Moses apparently understood this to mean that it would be hallowed by the death of God's most glorious and respected followers.