The Torah’s ambivalence regarding Nadav and Avihu reflects the complexity — and even tension — built into the very nature of the religious experience. Love of God engenders the desire to constantly feel the presence of the divine, to strive to become ever closer to the omniscient and compassionate Creator; fear of God engenders an awesome inadequacy, a sense of human frailty and transience, before the mysterium tremendum of the omnipotent and eternal Ruler of the universe.
Love of God inspires the individual to overcome all barriers, to push aside all veils, in a human attempt to achieve divine fellowship; fear of God fortifies the fences separating us from the Almighty, inspires us to humbly serve the author of life and death from a distance — without getting burnt by the divine fire.
From this perspective, herein lies the primary distinction between the priest [kohen] and the prophet [navi]. The priest is first and foremost the guardian of traditional laws and customs, ceremonies and prayers, which express the way in which we serve our God; these rituals are precisely defined to their every detail, have been time-honored and century-sanctified to provide historical continuity, a participation in the eternity of a rhythmic cycle which was there before I was born and will be retained after I die.
Hence the priest receives his mandate from his father – from generation to generation – and wears special and precise clothing symbolizing the external form of divine service. These rituals provide structure, but rarely allow for spontaneity; they ensure continuity but leave little room for creativity. Undoubtedly, the sacred rite passed down from generation to generation serves as our bridge to eternity, a gateway to the divine; but it also erects a certain barrier, weaves a curtain of white parchment and black letters between the individual heart and mind and the Almighty God.
The prophet, however, wears no unique clothing and need not be born into a specific family. He attempts to push aside any curtain, break through whatever barriers in order to scale the heights and achieve divine nearness. He feels God’s fire as “a fire which burns within his bones.” He is often impatient with the details of ritual, the means which often cause him to lose sight of the ends; for him, passion takes precedence over protocol, spontaneity over structure.
The Jewish religious experience insists on maintaining the sensitive dialectic between love and fear of God, between the prophetic and priestly personality in Divine service, despite and maybe even because of the necessary tension between them. You must cling to the Lord your God (d’vekut); but do not draw too near to the mountain of the divine revelation lest you die. Allow for religious creativity and relevance by seeking the wisdom of the judge of each generation, but retain precedent by “asking your parent and he will tell you, your grandparent and he will say to you.”
The Oral Tradition understands the necessity of sometimes abrogating a traditional law when a specific necessity warrants it – “It is the time to do for God, nullify your Torah” (Ps. 119:126) – but such extreme action is rarely invoked, generally giving way to obedience and humility in divine service. Prophet without priest threatens continuity and can even lead to frenzied fanaticism; priest without prophet can produce ritual without relevance, form without fire. Love God – but don’t lose your sense of awe and reverence; rejoice in God, but not without a measure of trembling; strive to get close to the divine dwelling, but do not break through the door.
Nadav and Avihu were caught up in the religious ecstasy of the moment – and wanted to get even closer to God. Their motives may well have been suffused with Divine love – but strange fires can lead to alien fanaticism; passion can breed perversion. They brought a strange fire – and God could not accept it. With all the inherent grief and tragedy, this was a time when the Divine lesson had to be taught to all generations: sometimes “by those who are nearest to Me must I be sanctified” (10:3).
A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men’s and women’s institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU.