Rachel Peck

Israel-Hamas war 5784: The fire next time

Not following instructions can mean blackouts, meltdowns, and destruction, like Aaron's sons' strange fire - or Israel's current state of affairs (Shemini)
Aaron the High Priest beholds the fire that kills his sons, Nadav and Avhiu. (via YouTube)
Aaron the High Priest beholds the fire that kills his sons, Nadav and Avhiu. (via YouTube)

This week’s Torah portion, Shemini, describes the death of two of Aaron’s sons. Moses has told them to offer sacrifices of atonement for themselves and the people, obeying “the word that Hashem has commanded you do, and revealed to you will be the glory of Hashem” (Exodus 9:6). They perform the sacrifices and then, vatetzei esh milifnei Adonai vatochal, “A fire went forth from before Hashem and consumed” the offerings on the altar. (Exodus 9:24)

And two verses later, the line vatetzei esh milifnei Adonai vatochal is repeated. Except this time, rather than the offerings, it is Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, who are consumed. (Exodus 10:2)

What happened in between these two verses?

Exodus 10:1 tells us that Nadav and Avihu put a burning incense offering on the pans designated for such and brought “an alien fire that He [Hashem] had not commanded.”

In the first instance, Hashem’s command is obeyed. The fire that consumes the specified sacrifices, offered following G-d’s earlier instructions exactly, reveals the glory of Hashem.

But in the second instance, Nadav and Avihu take it upon themselves to change G-d’s command. The incense offering is rejected, and the offerors perish.

Commentators suggest various interpretations. G-d punished Aaron’s sons for disobedience. Or they were punished for thinking they could improve on what Hashem commanded.

Or, perhaps interactions with an infinitely powerful G-d are hazardous and man can approach him only in certain ways. Perhaps, just as dealing with fire, electricity, or nuclear energy is potentially dangerous and can even be fatal, so dealing with this infinite energy source must be done with caution.

The Torah’s first book, Genesis, starts with chaos. During the six days of creation, G-d brings order to chaos, separating light from darkness, upper from lower waters, and earth from the heavens. He creates an orderly, predictable world that enables humanity to not just survive, but thrive.

In building the mishkan, roles were reversed. Humans were asked to create a finite space to contain an infinite power. To do so successfully, and to connect with that power, order was required. Electric and nuclear power plants require detailed instructions that must be followed exactly. If they are, people reap the rewards of clean energy without which many of the civilized comforts we take for granted are not possible. But failing to follow instructions can result in blackouts, meltdowns, and destruction. Perhaps bringing strange fire was a systems failure, to quote Everett Fox in his The Five Books of Moses.

The months before October 7th saw systems failure in Israel. Major changes to the judiciary were proposed without debate and consensus. Opposing sides took to the streets in massive demonstrations. Some Israelis threatened to pull their businesses out of the country. Others refused to show up for reserve military training. An atmosphere of hatred for the other side prevailed. Warnings from low-level observers about Hamas’ preparations for invasion were dismissed.

Today, even during the war, we are seeing a reprise, as secular and ultra-Orthodox clash over the issue of service (or lack thereof) in the military. Recently the Sephardic chief rabbi threatened that if a draft were imposed on the ultra-Orthodox, they would leave the country.

Some Israelis demand any deal to free the hostages, even releasing thousands of Palestinian prisoners with blood on their hands. Others oppose a deal and try to block humanitarian aid meant for Gaza. One member of the war cabinet traveled unauthorized to speak to foreign governments; the prime minister ordered Israel’s overseas embassies not to assist him. And even allies, seeing Israel’s division, have stepped in to tell them how to fight this war.

Now, along with a prominent American senator, some Israelis are calling for a new government — even in the midst of an existential war. If Israel does not overcome differences and reach compromises even on difficult issues, it risks systems failure. Israel’s political paralysis and social disunity before October 7th emboldened its enemies to attack, thinking Israel weak. Now, thinking the same, they reject truce proposals and demand the moon, believing that if they hold out long enough, they can survive to fight another day.

But even if the war ended tomorrow, Israel would still face the risks of a divided society, with many of its members hating others. Our sages tell us that baseless hatred, sinat chinam, caused the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans, the destruction of the Second Temple, and the dispersal of the Jews to other lands that began our long exile. The return of Jews to our land in a sovereign nation is a miracle without precedent in the history of peoples. We cannot afford another exile. We cannot afford systems failure for our country.

Some say a return to Torah law is needed. Others call for a constitution. Whatever the solution, we must find it, and soon. Our last polity went up in flames, with disastrous results. October 7th was a warning shot fired across the bow. The fire next time may be even worse.

About the Author
I was born in Washington, DC, and raised in the suburbs, but now reside in the temperate rain forest of the Pacific Northwest. I am a retired editor and proud Zionist. I can also be found at
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