Esor Ben-Sorek

Forbidden fire

Before my beloved wife died five years ago she made me promise to keep three requests. One of them was to continue my writing for the Times of Israel. Not to stop writing. But it has often been difficult for me to put my thoughts into printed words.

On Pesach, as I was walking out of the synagogue at the conclusion of the service, an elderly woman who knew my wife very well stopped to wish me a chag haPesach samayach and she mentioned that she had not read any of my articles recently. She urged me to continue, as I had promised my wife, and remarked that she looked forward always to reading one of my published articles.

After 1,200 of my articles had been published I decided that it was time for me to say “dayenu”… it’s enough. But requests from several readers urged me in their letters to continue writing. And so, I have added more articles to the folder marked “addendum” which will now join the previously bound 25 volumes.
The elderly woman who wished upon me more writing, Anne Mendelsohn, will be pleased that I yielded to her request. And I am grateful for her thoughtfulness.

And I am further much encouraged and thrilled by e-mails I have recently received from Shimon Shimonov, a 33-year-old brilliant student of mine at the university more than 15 years ago when he, at age 18, sat in my classroom. He shared his memories of me as a professor and his words deeply touched my heart. It is, therefore, to Shimon Shimonov that I dedicate these words. His kindness to me is God’s blessing and encourages me not to give up… to continue as best as old age can help. But I do not wish nor intend to compete with Moses the lawgiver on Mount Sinai. I stop counting at 100. 120 is way beyond my reach! Do you think that 12 more years is possible? (I do not).

The portion of the Torah which we read this week, parshat Shemini, is found in chapter 9 in the book of Vayikra (Leviticus). It is a very sad story about two young men, brothers and sons of Aaron the High Priest, brother of Moses our lawgiver.

The story is set on the day of the consecration and dedication of the Holy Sanctuary. It is on that day that the two brothers, Nadav and Abihu, died tragic deaths for committing an act of love that was not commanded by their father nor by God to do.

They entered the Sanctuary without permission and dedicated fire to the holiness of God. And for this unpermitted act, although well-intended, the fire struck them and they died instantly.

Lord Jonathan Sacks, a former Chief Rabbi of the British empire, has offered his explanation for their deaths. He suggests that we consider the five interpretations given by bible scholars, great rabbis of past centuries.

One such interpretation for their deaths is that the two brothers were waiting impatiently for their father Aaron and uncle Moses to pass away in order that they could assume control of the priesthood.

A second interpretation suggests that the brothers never married, believing that women were not worthy of them. A third rabbinical thought was that the brothers were drunk, a state forbidden when in the Sanctuary. Some believe that they entered the Holy Sanctuary on a special day that was forbidden to them and the fifth interpretation, probably the most correct one in my mind, is that they entered into the Holy of Holies which was permitted to no one except the High Priest.

Whatever the interpretations, it seems very cruel to me. The two brothers entered the Sanctuary only for the purpose of offering a holy fire to the God whom they loved and wanted to serve.

Yet our rabbis have taught us that we are not permitted to do any religious act unless it is written in our law codes given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. Laws permitted by God are acceptable to Him. Those not permitted are rejected by Him.

I have always found Parshat Shemini to be unkind. What is so wrong with serving God and loving Him in our personal ways albeit without Divine approval? Prayers three times each day are set at specific times from the rising of the sun until the setting thereof. I must confess, sinner that I am, that I pray to my God each day although my times may differ. It is because my firm belief is and always has been and forever will continue to be is that our Eternal God and Creator loves us and will accept our prayers of praise and gratitude to him regardless of the specific time of day.

My prayers, both those written in the sacred texts and personal prayers which I offer from my heart, are acceptable to God. We have a mutual love affair. He loves me and blesses me with renewed life each day and I love Him and recite praises and blessings of gratitude each day. He and I are partners.

It is painful for me to accept the tragic punishment of Nadav and Abihu as just acts. Where was God’s mercy? And why did Aaron, the High Priest and father of his two sons, maintain his complete silence when learning of their deaths? No tears, no cries, no mourning. He simply could not accept their fervent desire in an act of ecstasy to do something that was not commanded of them.

As Chief Rabbi Sacks has written “Priests inhabit a world that is timeless, ahistorical, in which nothing significant changes. The daily, weekly and yearly sacrifices were always the same. Every element of the service of the Tabernacle was bound by its own detailed rules, and nothing was left to the discretion of the Priest. The Priest was the guardian of religious order…..”

In my opinion, it could have been more merciful to strip Nadav and Abihu of their priestly functions, never permitting them to follow in the footsteps of their father Aaron the High Priest, rather than slaughtering them by forbidden fire.

Rabbi Sacks continues. “the role of the Kohen, the High Priest, and its continuing role of halachah (Divine laws) are both expressions of limits: rules, laws and distinctions…. that was the Priest’s role and what Nadav and Abihu betrayed by introducing spontaneity where it does not belong.”

The esteemed former Chief Rabbi of Britain maintains his belief that we need to recover a sense of limits.

Who am I to dispute him or to question his rabbinical authority? Nevertheless, sinner though I am and may continue to be, I continue to feel sorrow and anguish that two young men who loved God and came only to revere Him, had suffered such a tragic death. I read Leviticus chapter 9 with intense sorrow and pain.

Worshippers, beware! God is watching our every act.

Too bad He had no influence on Israel’s recent tragic election! A real tragedy for our nation! Can’t get worse! Not with more Netanyahu years in office.

But speaking of fires, the nicest one of all which truly touched my old heart, the fires of friendship which warmed me and reminded me that I have not been forgotten, was the fire kindled by a former beloved student, Shimon Shimonov from 15 long years ago.

Living now in busy Manhattan (New York City) he is considering making aliyah to Israel. As an Israeli, I have advised him to re-consider it. He can earn a better living in America and can be more readily accepted among friendlier Americans than among the elements of Israelis that we see every day in marches pro and contra. An uncivilized assortment.

Simon will be happier and more successful in the land of familiarity where he has an abundance of friends rather than being a lone traveler in the un-holy land.

Blessed be the parents who gave birth to such a fine son. And God has surely blessed me with a devoted and caring friend like Simon. I thank God for this gift.

May God watch over him and bless him for his wonderful gift of memories. As he has remembered me so too do I remember him. He is someone to cherish. And I do.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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