By Shlomo Riskin
The portion of Shemini begins with the week-long consecration ceremony of the Sanctuary. The nation is exalted, the leadership is inspired – but suddenly joy is turned into tragedy when the two sons of Aaron the High Priest are consumed by a fire sent down by God. The biblical text suggests it was because “they offered a strange fire which [God] had not commanded.” What possible sin could these two “princes” in Israel have committed to warrant such punishment?
The commentaries offer a number of possibilities. Immediately after the deaths of Aaron’s sons, the Torah issues a command forbidding Aaron and his sons to carry out their Sanctuary duties under the influence of any intoxicants. One midrash (Vayikra Raba 12:1) looks upon this injunction as a biblical hint that Nadav and Avihu were inebriated when they brought the incense offering, the intoxicant turning their incense offering into a “strange fire.”
Another midrash explains that Nadav and Avihu so envied Aaron and Moses that they couldn’t wait for them to step down so that they could step up. This is the strange fire of jealousy; they themselves initiated a sacrifice without asking permission of their elders, Moses and Aaron. They were too ambitious for their own good.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, my rebbe and mentor, often taught that in order to grasp how the sages wanted us to understand a given Torah portion, we should always turn to the haftora (the portion from the Prophets) for that week, which often serves as a commentary.
Three separate events take place in the haftora of this portion, (chapters six and seven in II Samuel): Thirty thousand of the nation’s chosen join with King David on his journey to restore the previously conquered Holy Ark to Jerusalem, turning the occasion into a celebratory procession accompanied with all kinds of musical instruments. The ark is transported in an oxcart that belongs to the brothers, Uzzah and Ahio; when the oxen stumble, Uzzah reaches out to take hold of the ark. Right then and there, God strikes Uzzah dead.
Three months pass before David again attempts to bring back the ark, and when he arrives triumphant in the city of Zion, he dances with all of his might, upsetting his wife who chastises him: “How did the king of Israel get his honor today, who uncovered himself today in the eyes of the handmaids of his servants, as one of the vain fellows who shamelessly uncovers himself” (ii Samuel 6:21).
The third incident records that David decides he wants to build a permanent dwelling for the ark of God rather than allowing it to rest in a curtained enclosure. At first the prophet Nathan is encouraging, but later in the night a voice tells him that although David’s throne will be established to last forever, he personally will not build the Temple; his son Solomon will. In the account of the same event recorded elsewhere, the blood that David caused to flow in the various wars he fought prevents him from building a Temple that must be dedicated to peace (I Chronicles 22:8).
All three incidents point to the same theme: the emotional instinct of the individual has to take a backseat to the emotional desire to come close, too close, to the holy; the holy must be revered from a distance. Uzzah certainly did not intend disrespect when he took hold of the ark; nevertheless, touching the holiest object in existence without permission was forbidden.
As to who will build the Holy Temple, King David himself must be ruled out because of all the spilled blood; his wars may have been necessary and even obligatory, but even the most just of wars brings in its wake excessive killing, often accidental killing of the innocent, etc. The haftora reflects that performing a mitzvah for God that God didn’t command – no matter how inspired, spiritually or ecstatically – invites a disapproving, destructive blaze from heaven. Like Uzzah, Aaron’s sons took the sacred into their own hands. Ecstasy, especially in the service of God, can turn into the passionate pursuit of God’s honor at the expense of human life and respect for others. Passionate religious fire in the name of God can turn into “self-righteous fanaticism” which can tragically lead to the desecration of the divine name.
Nadav and Avihu are rare Jews, sons of Aaron, nephews of Moses, their lives dedicated to service in the Temple. Nevertheless, they die tragically because they brought a passionate fire not commanded by God. Confusing our will with God’s will is truly playing with fire. If we limit ourselves to God’s commands in the ritual realm we can be reasonably certain that we are serving God and not our own egos, hatreds and passions. One dare not get too close to the divine fire, lest one get burnt by that very fire.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat Israel.