It’s the eighth day. The Mishkan (Tabernacle) and all its implements have been fashioned according to the most exacting specifications by the Children of Israel under the guidance of Bezalel ben Uri ben Hur. On each of the past seven days, Moses has erected and then disassembled the Mishkan. Today, it has been raised in order to remain standing. The Day of Dedication has arrived.
Then, at the height of the spiritual exaltation, after Aaron has blessed the people and they have fallen upon their faces in joy, a horrific tragedy strikes:
The sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire pan, they put fire in them and placed incense upon it; and they brought before God an alien fire, that He had not commanded them. A fire came forth from before God and consumed them and they died before God.
“Va’Yidom Aharon.” Aaron was literally “dumbstruck.” One can hardly imagine the wave of shock and disbelief that overcame all the onlookers and participants. And the question is, what did these sons of Aaron do that warranted such a swift and unprecedented punishment? Despite the fact that the verse itself speaks of their having “brought before God an alien fire,” the nature of this act is unclear and therefore the commentaries and sages seek a deeper understanding.
A variety of explanations are given by the commentaries. Rashi suggests two possibilities. One, they rendered a halachic decision without consulting their leader and teacher, Moses. Second, they entered the Holy of Holies while in a state of intoxication. Other options are that they chose not to have children or did not wear the appropriate priestly garments.
One intriguing suggestion is that they wished to repeat the exalted vision of God on his Heavenly throne that they had witnessed on Mount Sinai along with other priests and the 70 Elders. They longed to recapture the ecstatic experience of intense closeness to God, a passionate and unprecedented epiphany. It is this explanation that perhaps also encapsulates the others. It would appear that Nadav and Avihu sought an encounter both rapturous and beatific, unhindered by priestly discipline and halachic ruling. An experience that would be enhanced by wine and had the added preference of spontaneity over ritual.
This desire for a shortcut to spirituality without the “burden” of halachic responsibility is behind much of the spiritual searching of many, generally young, Jews today. There is a well-known joke about Sadie, a stereotypical Jewish mother who travels to the East for an audience with the great exalted guru. She stands in line in the blazing heat for hours awaiting her opportunity. A disciple warns her that she will only have time for a few words, but she continues to wait, undaunted.
When her turn comes, she walks up to the exalted master, looks him in the eye, and says: “Irving. Enough already. Come home.”
This anecdote stems from a rather fascinating phenomenon. In American JewBu, sociologist Emily Sigalow cites anecdotal evidence suggesting that Jews constitute up to 30 percent of Western Buddhists in the United States, far out of proportion to their number in the general population. Among the religious leaders, philosophers, and literati of American Buddhism, Jews are heavily prominent.
In his book, 10% Happier, author Dan Harris, a long-time anchor on ABC News, chronicles his path to meditation and mindfulness, a path liberally strewn with Jew-Bus — Jewish Buddhists — who instructed, inspired, and guided him along the way. Several of them revealed that their secular Jewish upbringing did not fulfill a spiritual yearning that they experienced in their lives. The irony is that these spiritual elements, along with several of the practices they ultimately adopt and promulgate, are to be found in the Judaism which they rejected as inadequate.
And it is not only Jews who are attracted to the fast-track spirituality and Oneness which bypasses the ritual and halachic religious structure, but non-Jews too, who are ironically taking their quest to the Kabbalah. One example is the “Madonna phenomenon,” involving a number of Hollywood personalities who have studied at and also contributed generously to the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles, run by Philip and Karen Berg. While the Bergs originally would only teach Kabbalah to Jews, they later began to offer kabbalistic wisdom to non-Jews as well, a move that proved to be extraordinarily profitable for them.
These modern-day examples may bear some similarity to the sin of Nadav and Avihu. The “alien fire” which they brought forward on the day of the consecration of the Mishkan, is the fiery and passionate, but undisciplined, ecstatic experience which they wished to replicate. It belongs in the realm of the prophet, not of the priest, as the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out. But Nadav and Avihu were priests, not prophets. The intense encounter with the Divine that characterizes prophecy is not summoned forth by man, but rather initiated by God, when and with whom He chooses.
The alternate explanation of the sin, that of choosing not to procreate, may account for the tragic outcome of their actions. We have just celebrated the holiday of Passover, a holiday that heavily accentuates one of the essential pillars of Jewish continuity, that of passing the tradition down through the generations from parent to child. An intense spiritual experience, while personally very inspiring and galvanizing, cannot be transmitted satisfactorily to anyone else. It is for the individual and not for the nation. Personal, but not for posterity.
What can, and must, be transmitted is a religious framework containing rituals, traditions, laws, texts to study, and holidays to celebrate. A framework that binds people rather than isolates individuals, but which still allows for the ecstatic experiences, spiritual elevation, and inspirational practices for which every soul yearns.