This Shabbat we read Parashat Shemini. The parasha contains two important topics that are related in an interesting way. The reading opens after the miluim ceremony, the initiation of the altar in the Mishkan. This is the eighth day of the installation of the priests into their service. (Rashi, Vayikra 9:1) The end of this ceremony is particularly powerful:
Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he stepped down after offering the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the offering of well-being. Moses and Aaron then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the LORD appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from before the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces. (Vayikra 9:22-24)
According to Rashi based on the Mekhilta d’Miluim 2:17 and the Talmud, Sotah 38a, Aharon faced the people and offered them the “priestly blessing” described in Bemidbar 6:24-26. On the words, Fire came forth from before the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar, Rabbi Eliyahu David Rabinowitz-Teomim, 19th century Poland who served in Mir, wrote:
When the people saw that a new fire descended upon the altar from Heaven, consuming everything that was on the altar, they broke into spontaneous song. This moment was captured by the words on Psalms, ‘May the righteous sing songs of joy before the Lord.’
So significant was the flame that Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah, 13th century France, known as the “Chizkuni,” wrote that this heavenly flame remained on the bronze altar until the time of rampant idolatry during the reign of King Menasche of Yehuda. At that time, the fire then disappeared.
What happened next was at once perplexing, understandable, terrifying, and tragic. The Torah says:
Now Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before God an alien fire, which God had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from Hashem and consumed them. In this way, they died before God. (10:1-2)
After initiating the offerings to God on the altar of the Mishkan, two of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, brought their own personal offerings. One might think that their action was a positive demonstration of their faith in Hashem and of their desire to get closer to God. This is precisely what Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra states: They thought they were doing something positive. The Torah describes what happened next with the exact same words that described how God accepted the initial offerings: And fire came forth from Hashem. However, instead of consuming only their offerings, this fire consumed Nadav and Avihu! Rashi quotes Rabbi Yishmael’s opinion that they were intoxicated, based on the prohibition of kohanim entering the sanctuary after drinking wine that follows this section of narrative. In addition, the Torah describes their offerings as accompanied by an esh zara, a “strange,” or “alienating” fire. The association of intoxication and an “alien fire” suggests that one way to read this episode is a teaching about extremes. Nadav and Avihu were fanatics. They were not balanced. They were public servants, responsible to serve God on behalf of the people, but instead acted unilaterally in a state of impassioned ecstasy. They trespassed all sense of boundaries, and that proves to be dangerous. The Chizkuni makes precisely this point about boundaries:
“Fire came forth;” the Torah first reports the fact that fire originated in heaven, before going into details, i.e. that this fire was triggered by actions taken by the two sons of Aaron mentioned here. The fire mentioned here is the fire mentioned in verse 24 of the previous chapter. The “details” commence with verse 1 in our chapter, i.e. “the two sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu each took his own censer and placed man made fire and incense on them, fire that G-d had forbidden to be put on these censers.” It was the custom of that heavenly fire to travel first to the Holy of Holies and from there to the golden altar in the Sanctuary and there to consume the incense offered. In this instance, the heavenly fire did not stop there, but travelled beyond the boundary of the Sanctuary to the copper altar in front of the Sanctuary and consumed these two sons of Aaron there. (10:2)
The flame that consumed them was indeed the heavenly fire, but it, too, traversed its boundaries, entering into the less holy precinct of the ‘azara. immolating the priests. When Moshe commanded Mishael and Eltzafan, the sons of Uzziel and therefore Aharon’s cousins, to remove Nadav and Avihu, the Torah describes taking the bodies “in their tunics.” Rashi then quotes the midrashic interpretation that since the bodies remained in their priestly garments, neither the fabric nor their physical bodies were burned. Instead, two “threads of flame entered their nostrils and burned them internally.” (See, Rashi, 10:5) This midrashic tradition further emphasizes the “spiritual” nature of their behavior. This was not a sin of the body. According to this reading, it was a sin of religious fanaticism, of breaking all boundaries precisely where and when boundaries needed regulation and control.
God seems to be teaching people an important, but very harsh lesson to learn: our job is to be the best human beings we can become, remaining balanced and humble, respecting boundaries. It becomes dangerous when people think that they can become too holy. I would like to suggest that the second part of the parasha is also concerned with balances, boundaries, and well-being for the rest of the nation. If the narrative about Nadav and Avihu addresses the extremes driven by fanatic desire of the priesthood, perhaps the rules of kashrut introduce the similar discipline to the rest of the people. The juxtaposition suggests that all consumption is, in a way, ideally an offering to God. Ideally, our tables are altars, and we eat intentionally and mindfully, never mindlessly. Only herbivorous mammals are kosher, and only sea creatures with fins and scales. It turns out that sea creatures without fins and scales are largely scavenger creatures, or ferociously carnivorous. The same is true of fowl. The Torah does not describe criteria for kosher fowl, but provides a list of prohibited birds. Like the mammals, kosher birds are herbivores, while non-kosher fowl are birds of prey. Rambam, in the third section of the Moreh Nevuchim, describes the potential ways in which the character of the animals people consume can affect the character and personality and behavior of the consumer. Eating cruel animals desensitizes one to empathy and kindness. Even if the medicine of Maimonides’ day made such a literal correlation, figuratively this remains a compelling thought. If one eats mindfully, then one’s taste, hunger, and imagining the source of the food are all interrelated. All one has to accept is the notion that our bodies, thoughts and feelings are related to and affect each other to make sense of this kernel of an idea.
Rabbi Tzadok haKohen of Lublin, 19th century, wrote a treatise called, ‘et ‘achila, “The Time of Eating.” There, treats the spiritual problem of craving, satisfaction, consumption, and control. Control needs to be inner-control, and not extrinsic. He saw a deep connection between dietary rules, mindfulness, discipline, and balanced well-being. Chapter 5 is particularly fascinating, dedicated to the problem of eating too quickly. He wrote:
Another way to assuage craving is to slow down. The intensity of craving rests upon the speed with which one eats, for the person is driven by desire to swallow and to fulfill his craving quickly….[Of course, this just empowers the craving ever more intensively.] Sexual drive operates in the same fashion….One should always prepare oneself before eating. This applies even to the simplest meal of the poor, and certainly to eating Terumah on Shabbat which is a meal fulfilling a religious ideal. One must not eat “on the go,” (lit. אכילת עראי) for that is a type of gluttony, characterized by grabbing the food [and stuffing it into one’s mouth.]….
Approaching kashrut from a standpoint of mindfulness, rather than only the industrial technology of food production, potentially deepens its meaning. From this perspective, boundaries that dietary restrictions impose are not primarily external, but point to internal mechanisms to help us eat more slowly, more intentionally, and with an expanded awareness of where our food comes from and how it is produced. The internal balances that Nadav and Avihu failed to develop in the Mikdash, have an analogue for us in how we approach food in particular, but the act of eating and consumption in general. If animals were offered to God in the Mishkan, filling the sacred space with the fragrance of incense of roasting meat, that space also held the awareness that human hands took the life blood from them. What might be a parallel moment of reflection, humbling us as we prepare food and eat?
Perhaps the teaching of Shemini is about boundaries, mindfulness and humility. We need boundaries to nourish ourselves physically, we need boundaries to nourish ourselves spiritually, and our physical and spiritual aspects are interdependent. Is it really possible for a person to be physically healthy but spiritually starved, or spiritually satisfied but without an appetite? Nadav and Avihu violated the boundary between the human and the divine. Hashem therefore taught Moshe the rules of kashrut. Perhaps kashrut teaches that when the Jewish people eat from the world, when they take from the world for themselves, and consume to stay alive, they should do so with the greatest humility and care, respectfully, with trepidation, always keeping the sanctity of life in mind, and the dignity of everyone else who might be affected. If the Torah is teaching us never to eat mindlessly, then it is not a great leap to consider the implications of so many other actions, driven by desires, for humankind. If we can be mindful about what we consume, perhaps we can become mindful of how we treat ourselves and each other, always grateful and mindful of the sanctity of life.