‘Out of Bounds’ Parashat Mishpatim 5779

The last few verses of Parashat Mishpatim describe a surreal scene in which Moses, Aaron, Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy elders witness G-d [Shemot 24:10]: “They saw the G-d of Israel and beneath His feet was like the forming of a sapphire brick and like the appearance of the heavens for clarity”. Nearly as interesting as the revelation is the nonchalant reaction of the participants [Shemot 24:11]: “Upon the nobles of the children of Israel [G-d] did not lay His hand, and they saw God and they ate and drank.” They saw unfiltered G-dliness and they celebrated by eating hamburgers?

Let us leave the specifics of the revelation and the response aside and ask a different question: How could these people see G-d and live to tell about it? The Torah describes G-d as [Devarim 4:24] “an all-consuming fire”. When Moses asks G-d to see His Divine Presence, G-d refuses, telling him [Shemot 33:20] “You will not be able to see My face, for man shall not see Me and live”. It is physically impossible. You will die trying. Eventually, G-d and Moses hammer out a deal in which G-d covers Moses’s eyes and lets him observe only G-d’s back[1]. How did Moses, Aaron, Nadav, Avihu, and the seventy elders survive a full encounter?

The answer is that they didn’t survive – not in the long term. Rashi, the consummate medieval commentator, quotes the Midrash Tanchuma: “They gazed and peered and [because of this] were doomed to die, but the Holy One, blessed be He, did not want to disturb the rejoicing of [this moment of the giving of] the Torah. He waited [to kill] Nadav and Avihu until the day of the dedication of the Mishkan, and for [killing] the elders[2] until [the incident of the ‘Complainers (Mit’onenim).’” G-d did not want to spoil the festive atmosphere and so He pushed the implementation of the death penalty a few months to the right.

Wait a minute – did we just learn that Nadan and Avihu were killed because the saw the Divine Presence? That is not what is written in my chumash [Vayikra 10:1-2]: “Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his pan, put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and they brought before G-d foreign fire, which He had not commanded them. Fire went forth from before G-d and consumed them, and they died before G-d.” The cause of death is crystal clear: G-d gave them a list of offerings that they were required to bring. They thought it would be nice to bring an additional offering. G-d disagreed and He killed them. And if we’re already asking questions on Rashi, let’s add another one: Rashi asserted that G-d waited before exacting punishment in order not to detract from the festivities of the day. When does G-d punish Nadav and Avihu for their earlier sins? On the day that the Mishkan was dedicated, the day that finite man built a corporeal home for the infinite Holy Presence, the day that Aaron officiated along with his sons, brimming with pride. This day was no less joyful than the day that they committed the sin that lead to their death. Why does G-d choose this particular day to kill Nadav and Avihu?

While the Torah says that Nadav and Avihu died because they offered a “strange fire”, Rabbi Zalman Szorotzkin, writing in “Oznayim LaTorah”, enumerates another five causes from the Midrash; [1] They adjudicated in front of Moses, their Rabbi, [2] they did not consult with their father before offering the “strange fire”, [3] they did not discuss it among themselves, [4] they entered the sanctuary drunk, and [5] they entered the Holy of Holies. He also mentions the fact that they looked at the Divine Presence that fateful day on Mount Sinai. Rabbi Szorotzkin tries to identify a root cause common to all of their alleged sins but I would like to suggest one of my own. I suggest that G-d killed Nadav and Avihu because they left the framework that G-d Himself had defined: They offered sacrifices they were not meant to offer. They entered places they were not meant to enter. They did not consult people they were meant to consult. They stared[3] when they were not meant to look. They went out of bounds. Rabbi Chaim ben Attar, known as the Or HaChaim HaKadosh, explains that Nadav and Avihu were extremely spiritual people. They craved G-dliness. Their souls yearned to draw near to G-d. They believed that the barriers that G-d had erected did not apply to them. But just as Icarus flew too close to the sun that melted his wings, they came too close to G-dliness and they were burnt alive. Nadav and Avihu were not killed on any arbitrary day. They were killed on the very day in which a spiritual nuclear reactor was opened to the public. Their deaths taught a critical lesson: If you want to worship G-d, you must do it on His terms.

Last week, a friend sent me a link to an article written by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, called “Why I (refuse to) Pray”[4]. In the first part of the article, Cardozo describes his attitude toward prayer. To Cardozo, prayer is a way in which man reminds himself how much he needs G-d: “I need to praise Him because I am not His equal; not because He needs me for anything”. Then he drops a bombshell: “I am not a ‘Shulchan Aruch Yid,’ someone who carefully follows every detail of the celebrated codex of Halacha, written by the great Rabbi Josef Karo, because I consider that dangerous. Any religious codification carries risky elements. One cannot acquire religiosity from an established codex without losing the complexity of genuine religious life. The Shulchan Aruch and Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah were meant for the general population, but not for people like me; not because I am better, but because I am different. And it will be good to realize that there are many more people like me who cannot find themselves within this structure, which may be too narrow for them… So, I also do not always pray Mincha and Maariv. Depends on what my religious condition is… I do not go to synagogue on weekdays, because I need to pray in solitude in order to be able to concentrate on making it ‘work.’”

Humans need to pray to connect with something larger than ourselves. But we must remember that Judaism is a religion of action. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, writing in his momentous “Tanya”, teaches that feelings are like wings that carry a mitzvah higher. Without the original mitzvah, feelings are worthless. The Talmud in Tractate Berachot [8a] teaches that G-d has but one small “plot of land” in our corporeal world, a four-by-four cubit patch of halacha. Structure is the secret sauce of Judaism. It is the reason why Judaism has persevered over two thousand years of exile: Structure and the stability that come with it can be transmitted to the next generation while feeling cannot. I admit that structure comes at a cost: We willingly relinquish some of our “complexity of genuine religious life” in order to retain structure. Nadav and Avihu sacrificed structure for spirit and they paid for it with their lives.

While discussing Cardozo’s article in shul, a guest diverted my attention to an article written by Rabbi YY Jacobson[5]. Rabbi Jacobson quotes a Midrash in which four sages try to distill the Torah into one verse. The fourth sage, Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi, asserts that the entire Torah can be rolled into the verse [Bemidbar 28:4] “One sheep you shall offer in the morning and the second sheep in the afternoon”. The verse is referring to the daily Tamid offering. Why should this be the Mission Statement of the Torah? Rabbi Jacobson, basing himself on the MaHaRaL of Prague, explains: “This verse speaks of unwavering consistency. Every single morning and every single afternoon you shall make a sacrifice for your Creator… What makes living a Jewish life unique is the unswerving commitment to live and breathe these truths day in, day out, seven days a week, 365 days a year. During exciting days as well as monotonous days, on bright days and bleak days—“One sheep you shall offer in the morning and the second sheep in the afternoon.” In the morning, when you awake, you are called to make a sacrifice to G-d. In the afternoon, when your day is winding down, you are called, once again, to sacrifice something of yourself for G-d. Judaism is not only about a moving Yom Kippur experience or an emotional memorial ceremony; it is something the Jew lives every moment of his life. It is the dedication of ordinary people to construct, through daily ordinary acts, a fragment of heaven on planet earth.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Shoshana.

[1] The Talmud in Tractate Berachot [7b] asserts that G-d showed Moses His tefillin.

[2] Why Moses and Aaron did not warrant the death penalty is a topic for another day.

[3] The Torah tells us first “They saw (vayir’u) the G-d of Israel” and then it tells us “They saw (va’yechezu) G-d”. The Seforno [Shemot 18:21] teaches that the Hebrew verb H.Z.E means, “to take a long, hard look”.

[4] https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/why-i-refuse-to-pray/

[5] https://jewsforjudaism.org/knowledge/articles/what-is-the-mission-statement-of-judaism/

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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