This week’s Parsha (Torah Portion), Parshat Shemini, tells the story of Nadav and Avehu, the sons of Aharon the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). In Vayikra 10:1 Nadav and Avehu offer an Aish Zarah, a strange fire, in the process of performing their duties in the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Immediately after offering their strange fire, “A fire came from before God and consumed them, and they died before God.” (Vayikra 10:2).
The commentator Rashi understands the term Aish Zarah as a fire that they were not commanded to offer, a fire that they decided on their own to kindle. For this they were burned to death? What was it specifically that Nadav and Avhehu did that was wrong? We are not told that the fire is evil or associated with idol worship. True, they violated what God commanded and what Moshe had taught, but was death the appropriate punishment for this violation?
Let us ask another question: what was Nadav and Avehu’s intention? Did they desire to commit a sin? There is nothing in the text to tell us, but we can imagine that their intentions were positive. After all, they were the children of Aharon; God’s chosen Kohanim (Priests). In fact, the Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 12:2 points out that Moshe considered Nadav and Avihu to be greater than himself and his brother Aharon. Perhaps Nadav and Avehu thought that more of Bnai Yisrael (Israelites) would be further connected to God by their fire (This theme comes up through out the Midrash Sifra on Vayikra Chapters 9 and 10).
This in turn strengthens our original question. What was it that Nadav and Avehu did that was wrong? An answer may be found by comparing the story of Nadav and Avehu to the Haftorah for Parshat Shemini (II Shmuel Chapter 6-7:17), in which King David is bringing the Ark back to Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) and a man named Uzzah stops the Ark from falling. As soon as Uzzah touches the Ark, he is killed by God. (II Shmuel Chapter 6:6-7) The commentator the Abarbanel asks why, stating “Uzzah had proper intentions and his thoughts were for the sake of Heaven, so why did God kill him in anger with no falsehood in his hands and no deceit in his mouth?” Abarbanel answers his question based on the Talmud Sotah 35a—that Uzzah’s grasping of the Ark demonstrated a lack of faith in God. According to Abarbanel, God would not let the Ark fall. While Abarbanel’s explanation is powerful, I would like to suggest a simpler explanation. Though it was positive to stop the Ark from falling, the fact that Uzzah was not a Kohen or Levi barred him from touching the Ark. A law cannot be broken for some greater goal, even for protecting the Ark.
This seems to be Nadav’s and Avehu’s sin as well. Though their intentions were good, to bring Bnai Yisrael closer to God, they violated the law; they used the wrong procedure. This is what the Midrash Sifra points out on Vayikra 10:1, that they ignored the teachings of Moshe and the commands of God and made a decision on their own.
Judaism, any approach to Judaism, has a procedure to it. One could infer from this that not only is our goal of spirituality important, but our method of practicing it is important as well. For example, the spiritual goal of Kiddush is to sanctify Shabbat—to make it a holy joyous day—and to do this we say a Bracha (Blessing) and drink some wine. That is the procedure almost every approach to Judaism agrees with. Would a different practice, say, doing a dance, serve the same purpose? Would the dancer have engaged in the experience of Kiddush? No. I would encourage this person to do their dance. Dancing is a wonderful thing to do on Shabbat. However, I would also try to learn with them the value of making Kiddush.
A problem can also arise if people go to the other extreme. Someone can be so careful about the procedures of Judaism that they miss the goal: spirituality. They can follow every detail of every holiday, be precise in every ritual and recite every word of every prayer but miss the big picture of Judaism. It is this de-spiritualization of Judaism that to some degree has played a role in assimilation. People are often turned off to Judaism by viewing it as a random set of rituals rather then holy practices that give meaning to one’s life. Some people for this reason are attracted to cults. They see these cults as having spirituality and they view Judaism as devoid of it. How tragically ironic—Judaism has such a tradition of spirituality.
Perhaps that is what the story of Nadav and Avehu is ultimately about: that, inadvertently, conflicts sometimes arise between procedure and intention in Judaism, and that we need to be wary of it and find ways to deal with it. The story of Nadav and Avehu heightens our attention to this issue.
When Rashi points out that the deaths of Nadav and Avehu were fulfilling what God said in Shemot (Exodus) 29:43 that the Mishkan will be “Sanctified through my glory,” perhaps this is the point he is illustrating: that Nadav and Avehu’s act some how sanctified the Mishkan by teaching the Jewish people that this conflict exists between spirituality and procedure in Judaism and that we must find a way to bring them together.
We must learn from the ultimate sacrifice that Nadav and Avehu made and ensure that Judaism is a vehicle towards spirituality, bringing the world together and coming closer to God. Individual Mitzvot should not be worshiped. Mitzvot should be done as a way to worship God.
A second thought:
I would like to add a second thought to what I wrote and bring it in a slightly different direction. This past Tuesday night, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band performed at Madison Square Garden, and I was there. Two weeks ago I saw Phil Lesh (the bass player of The Grateful Dead) at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, New York. Being a member of E Street Nation (a person who is faithful about attending Bruce Springsteen concerts) and a Dead Head (someone who is serious about seeing Grateful Dead shows) does not seem to go together. This has been a tension for me, ever since I fell in love with both genres of music. I only mean that they conflict on a communal level. In other words, many members of E Street Nation have a problem with my passion for the Grateful Dead I find that many of my fellow Dead Heads take issue with my zeal for Bruce Springsteen.
I can still remember being utterly pained as a teenager reading the book, Born To Run, the biography of Bruce Springsteen by Dave Marsh. Marsh critiques the Grateful Dead and their jamming (improvisational) style of music and uses it as a way to compare and contrast Bruce’s approach. I simply love both. Further more, what is fascinating is I see certain small similar qualities in both of their work. In fact in Bruce’s earlier career, he was definitely more of a jammer. Also, the late great saxophonist, Clarence Clements, of the E Street Band, played with the Grateful Dead on June 21, 1989 in Shoreline Mountainview, California on the song Morning Dew.
The Grateful Dead are jammers and there is only a little bit of planning with a lot of innovation as you go. Bruce Springsteen is more of a balanced act. He comes in with a very well thought out planned and rehearsed show but he can also throw you a curve ball every now and then. In other words, he is still ready to jam. In the rest of the world of Rock and Roll there are other models.
What does this have to do with Nadav and Avehu? Nadav and Avehu were jammers. Clearly, you have to know when to jam and when to read the sheet music. For the opening day of the Mishkan, it is not a day to jam, it is a day to stick to the music.
The same is true for Judaism. We have approaches that are more into jamming and others that are more orchestrated.
Let me put some questions out to you:
For this week’s song I am sharing with you Bruce Springsteen’s version of “Shout,” by the Isley Brothers from his 2014 tour on April 15, 2014 in Columbus, Ohio (Bruce also played “Shout” this past week at Madison Square Garden). I am also including the original song by the Isley Brothers. The two versions demonstrate how Bruce balances the orchestrated and jamming at the same time. He takes a classic song like “Shout” and makes it his own. The Isley Brothers original is around 4 minutes long. Bruce’s version is close to 10 minutes.
To listen to Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band sing, “Shout,” click HERE.
To listen to the Isley Brothers sing, “Shout,” click HERE.