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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Outside the Temple confines, in some other unspecified area of religious life, the sensibilities which Nadav and Avihu represent are of value, and are to be cherished. This is what makes them 'greater' than Moses and Aaron, who, as obedient servants of God, lack these qualities. In the Temple, however, the immediacy and totality of God's overwhelming presence necessitates the obedience of a Moses and Aaron--there is no room left for the creativity and spontaneity of Nadav and Avihu's offering.

This is why Moses and Aaron were not chosen to sanctify the Tabernacle with their deaths--their mode of religious activity is appropriate to the Tabernacle. They have already learned to control themselves, and act in accordance with the demands of the immediate presence of God. It is Nadav and Avihu's mode of religious expression, as precious as it may be, which is at odds with the supreme sanctity of the Tabernacle.

It may be that our challenge, today, is to try to determine exactly where and when such creativity and spontaneity is to be applauded and encouraged in religious life, and where and when it is to be condemned, and a more conservative, obedient, strict adherence to traditional norms of religiosity is called for.

It is important to note, I think, that this entire story is told in the context of fathers and sons--Aaron's grief as a father who has lost his sons, Moses's comforting him as a brother and uncle, it all very much feels like a family story. This seems to me to indicate that the issue we have discussed here is a generational one.

Aaron and Moses, the archetypal fathers/founders of the family/tribe, have a relationship with God and His laws which is typified by obedience, concern for detail, and letter-of-the-law compliance with the rules. Their children have a more personal, dynamic, from-the-heart (perhaps rebellious) relationship with the religion and its rituals.

This is seen by the 'parents'--God, Moses, and, in his silent acquiescence, Aaron--as valuable and precious, but too dangerous to be central to the rite and ritual of the tribe. It belongs elsewhere, outside of the center. The Temple is not the place for this strange fire, and, therefore, they must be punished for deviating from religious norms in this holiest of places, thereby making it clear to the rest of the 'children' that such behavior, while of tremendous value, is unacceptable at the center of the nation's religious experience.

This really resonates for me as both a parent and a child. The difficult tasks of setting limits and educating for values on the one hand, while encouraging and being open to creativity and 'different-ness' on the other, is central to parenting. Hopefully, we can learn from Nadav and Avihu to value the personal, spontaneous gift from the heart, in our children, in others, and in ourselves, and find an appropriate place for it somewhere in our religious lives, and, in fact, in our lives in general.

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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.