Parashat Shemini

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.

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Moses, in our Parashah, after the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, tells Aaron that, until now, he had thought that God meant that either himself or Aaron, the two leaders of the people, would die, thereby, somehow, sanctifying and glorifying the Temple. But now that Aaron's sons have died, Moses sees that they are in fact greater than their father Aaron or their uncle Moses, and were therefore chosen to sanctify the Tabernacle with their deaths. This is apparently intended as a kind of consolation to Aaron, who accepts it in silence.

The notion that someone great or important would die at the inauguration of the Temple, in order to somehow sanctify it, is a strange one, reminiscent of human sacrifice. Apparently, it indicates that the full force and profundity of God's presence in the Tabernacle could only be communicated by the death of one of the leaders of the Jewish people--a dramatic indication of God's might, and of the awesome nature of His Temple. If this is the case, why, indeed, were Moses and/or Aaron, clearly the greatest Jews available, not chosen to play that role? Why were Nadav and Avihu chosen, and wherein lies their greatness?

The Torah Tells Us All We Need to Know

To answer this question, I am going to assume that there is no secret, unknown story which explains their stature. I will assume that what the Torah tells us about Nadav and Avihu is all we need to know. If this is so, then all we know of them and their greatness is the fact of their offering "a strange fire, which they had not been commanded to bring" before God. This, apparently, is their greatness, and also the act that triggered their deaths.

If this is the case, and the act of offering an unbidden 'strange fire' before God places the sons of Aaron on some higher level than Moses and Aaron, then we must think a bit more about the nature of their act. It would seem that this spontaneous, voluntary, from-the-heart offering of incense is in some way more precious, more honorable, than the commanded rites performed so obediently by Moses and Aaron.

The impetuous, unbidden, unscripted act of the sons stands in stark contradistinction to the days and weeks of strict obedience to the specifics of God's commandments about the building and operation of the Tabernacle on the part of the fathers. The values of spontaneity, imagination, and creativity, are privileged, according to Moses's statement, above the values of strict obedience to the letter of the law. And yet, for acting on these values, Nadav and Avihu are killed.

This voluntary offering seems, therefore, to communicate two contradictory messages. On the one hand, when Moses states that Nadav and Avihu are greater than he and Aaron, he seems to underscore the value of spontaneity, creativity, and personal statement in religious activity. On the other hand, the death of the boys indicates that such an approach is dangerous, threatening, and, ultimately unacceptable in the Temple. The implication seems to be that there is value in their actions, but not when they are done in the Temple.

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Rabbi Shimon Felix

Rabbi Shimon Felix is the Israel Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. He lives with his family in Jerusalem, and has taught in a wide variety of educational frameworks in Israel and abroad.