Piny Hackenbroch
Senior Rabbi Woodside Park Synagogue, London

Nadav and Avihu -Playing with fire!

One of the most joyous days in our history was the day of the completion of  the  construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. Sacrifices had been offered on behalf of the Jewish people to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf, fire came down from heavens and consumed the sacrifices indicating the atonement of the nation for that most damaging episode in our history. The Jewish people were elated and joyful having been reassured that the Divine presence would once again dwell in their midst.

Yet the joy and euphoria was short lived and transformed to doom. Tragedy struck as Nadav and Avihu, Ahron’s sons and two of the most outstanding men of their generation were killed when a fire descended from heavens and stuck them down.

And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon, took each of them his censer, and put fire in it, and put incense on it, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He commanded them not. And a fire went out from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. (Vayikra 10:1-2)

At that spiritually uplifting moment, which was all love and conjunction with God, Nadav and Avihu each took their censer, put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered the fire before God. And at that very moment, that spiritually uplifting experience was shattered into pieces, for a fire went out from before God and burned Nadav and Avihu who died before God.

Their deaths seem shrouded in mystery as to the precise cause of their sin that led to severe Divine retribution.

The Torah itself as quoted above points to 1) a strange fire 2) that He had not commanded them not to bring. The double negative is itself baffling, had they received a negative commandment not to bring the incense – if so when? Alternatively, did they simply bring something of their own accord and if so why such a harsh punishment? The Baal Haturim suggested that the fact they had brought  incense  of their own initiative was in itself deemed strange in the “eyes” of G-d and hence the fire they brought is likewise labelled a “strange fire”.

But what was the motive behind the unauthorised actions of Nadav and Avihu.  Afterall they were undoubtedly towering personalities. Moshe himself recognised in a sense they were greater than Ahron and himself so where did they go wrong?

I would like to share the approach of one of the great Chassidic Masters of the 19th century that addresses this question. The Sfas Emes quoting the writings of his saintly grandfather the Chidushei Harim, suggested that the defective language of the verse we mentioned above “which He commanded them not” indicates that the  fault lay in a fundamental floor in carrying out a form of Divine service that was not commanded for them to do so. The primary force of every human action is the Divine command. We are all expected to demonstrate our unswerving loyalty to God by  adhering  to the enth degree His commandments thereby demonstrating our willingness to  nullify our reason and logic to His will.

If we consider the momentous occasion in Jewish history of the Giving of the Torah, the climax to that occasion from our perspective was our total commitment to the totality of G-d’s commandments, reflected in our stating in unison “Naaseh Venishmah” we will do and we will listen. The Talmud in Shabbat itself points to the fact the entire nation received two crowns for affirming their total commitment to the precepts of the Torah. It was a statement of intent that we would carry out the commands in their totality even prior to learning and understanding them. In the fullness of time G-d wanted us to understand the Torah and Mitvot but of primacy importance was the adhering to the precepts.

This Sfas Emes explains in the case of Nadav and Avihu it became clear, that fundamentally the error of their ways lay in the fact despite having laudable intentions and despite their desire and wish to demonstrate their overflowing love for G-d in their act of service, they had totally missed the point.  The “command was missing”. Our actions require a Divine  command as a prerequisite, for for them to be deemed  carrying  out service of God. The command requirement says the Sfas Emes implies two things. Firstly, it denies the validity of an action that is not based on God’s command even if the intention is good and by its nature  involves drawing near to God. It also heightens the value of an action that is in fact based on a Divine imperative even when the reason is not necessarily understood. Of course, far from merely  going through the motions, our faith is meant to be carried out with  intent, passion, excitement and joy. Yet when all is said and done the framework for that service is the  critical form through which we serve G-d. We cannot determine based on our personal sentiments how we wish to serve G-d.

Rabbi S R Hirsch  relates along similar lines. He states “Self devised sacrifices would destroy the truth which is meant to achieve Mans submission to it by the very sacrifice, and would mean the glorification of arbitrary subjectivity and placing it on the throne which should be dedicated holding exclusively to obedience to God….The Jewish priests functions must be executed through the accomplishment of gods ordinances, not by inventing new ways of worship.”

The attraction to create new modes of service  in faith may often come from a  sincere desire for self expression and to come closer to G-d  as was the case with Nadav and Avihu and  may well be appealing and appear as innovative and more meaningful  but it is misguided and fundamentally floored.. There is ample space within the realms of the Torah and Mitzvot  to facilaite our own self expression by dint of   the uniqueness of the human spirit  and character.

Rav Amital z’l  Rosh Yeshiva in Yeshivat Har Etzion and exemplified the correct approach, made the point that, one only has to take a cursory glance at those trends and attempted innovations in our faith over the course of Jewish history to recognise what has permanence and basis  endures and becomes an integral part of our Faith eg the Daf Yomi programme, whereas those programmes that were devised outside of the framework of Judaism quickly fade away and lacks foundations and basis.

The challenge posed from the episode of Nadav and Avihu is for us all to develop our Avodat Hakodesh our faith with passion and intensity and self expression within the existing framework of the corpus of Jewish Law, thereby bringing light to our lives and those around us.

About the Author
Rabbi Hackenbroch is Senior Rabbi of Woodside Park Synagogue, London, UK, as well as a commercial mediator, Holocaust Educator and sought after speaker.