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Fathers and Sons

“It’s not time to make a change. Just relax take it easy. You’re still young. That’s your fault. There’s so much you have to know.” — Father and Son. Cat Stevens. 1970

Nadav and Avihu were superstars. The two eldest sons of Aaron were heirs to the high priest, wielding a level of holiness that equaled that of their father and uncle. They were responsible for the huge number of sacrifices and donations to the Tabernacle. Their future seemed assured.

And then tragedy. The two brothers brought a man-made fire to burn the incense. They were not commanded to do so. G-d was meant to send down a flame instead. The heavenly fire entered the nostrils of Nadav and Avihu, killing them instantly. On the day G-d joined His people Aaron watched with horror the destruction of his family.

The explanations by the commentators in this week’s Torah portion vary. All of them seek to blame Nadav and Avihu for their demise: They performed the Tabernacle service under the influence of alcohol; they came ill-dressed; they refused to have children, they issued rulings in front of their teacher Moses.. The Torah, however, provides only one reason: Nadav and Avihu brought to their sacrifice a “foreign fire that they were not commanded to do.”

Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Ben Aaron Luntschitz served as the rabbi of Prague from 1604 to 1619. A contemporary of the Maharal, he is best known as the Kli Yakar, or “precious vessel,” a plain-spoken yet incisive commentary on the Torah.

“In my opinion, I have a duty to explain in favor of all these opinions,” the Kli Yakar says. “…It is proper to interpret this ‘foreign fire’ according to its meaning and the hint of other things implied in foreign fire.”

And here is the explanation. Nadav and Avihu suffered the fate of many children born into privilege. From a young age, they were fed with a silver spoon; their father and uncle were leaders, selected by G-d to bring the Jews out of Egypt. The sons were bright, attentive and quickly became expert in conducting the divine service..

They were also impatient, chafing under the authority of Aaron and Moses. As they followed, their elders, Nadav and Avihu whispered, “When will these two old men die and we will rule the people?”

With impatience came cynicism. The Tabernacle service was an opportunity for indulgence. Their power was intoxicating. They often thought of how to exploit their position for their own benefit. After all, they were entitled.

With riches came selfishness. Why get married and share your wealth when you can have it all? Why be saddled with a family when all you care about is yourself?

Why do the sons of the rich and famous fall? Why does nearly every celebrity — whether in entertainment or politics — suffer from children who decline into drugs and violence. Cameron Douglas was the son of actor Michael Douglas, who by the time he was 30 became a successful actor and producer. But the only thing Cameron was good at was drugs. He spent years in jail for selling methamphetamine, even from his prison cell. His dad was powerless.

Marcus Jordan, the son of basketball legend, Michael, had all the tools and connections for success. Instead, Marcus walked away from college basketball and boasted about spending $120,000 in Las Vegas. Eventually, he was arrested by police on various charges. His father’s fame proved futile.

The children of Jewish leaders were often no different. The grandson of Moses sold idols; the sons of Samuel became rich off their control of the Tabernacle; Absalom tried to overthrow his father, King David and was killed in the subsequent civil war. The son of Solomon lost most of his kingdom within his first two years on the throne. The sons and brothers of Yehuda the Maccabee fought each other and invited Rome to determine royal succession.

The Talmud says one of the biggest mistakes of privileged children is their sense of entitlement. My parents were rich, so should I. My parents were scholars; so will I. Riches might be handed down but the Torah isn’t bequeathed. It must be earned by each of us.

This is how Ethics of Fathers puts it: “Do not seek greatness for yourself, and do not lust for honor. More than you study, do. Desire not the table of kings, for your table is greater than theirs, and your crown is greater than theirs, and faithful is your Employer to pay you the rewards of your work.”

The Kli Yakar says G-d was patient with Nadav and Avihu. He did not want to hurt Aaron or mar the joy of the inauguration of the Tabernacle. But when the sons flouted G-d’s command and took man-made fire rather than wait for the divine flame — that was their end.

Nadav and Avihu were succeeded by their two younger brothers — Elazar and Itamar. They were nowhere near the spiritual level of their late brothers. They made mistakes in their service. But they were faithful to their elders, particularly Aaron and Moses. The first lesson they received was not to drink wine before the service. The underlying meaning: Do not follow your brothers who became drunk with power and excess. And then, you will see clearly, the prime requirement for leadership.

“[This is] an eternal statute for your generations, to distinguish between the holy and profane, the unclean and clean, and instruct the children of Israel regarding all the laws that the Lord spoke to them through Moses.”

About the Author
Steve Rodan has been a journalist for some 40 years and worked for major media outlets in Israel, Europe and the United States. For 18 years, he directed Middle East Newsline, an online daily news service that focused on defense, security and energy. Along with Elly Sinclair, he has just released his first book: In Jewish Blood: The Zionist Alliance With Germany, 1933-1963 and available on Amazon.
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