Playing With Alien Fire

I recently had a splendid visit with my grandfather. The fact that he died 76 years ago is not important. We had a wonderful visit together nevertheless. There I was, sitting with him at his kitchen table while he poured a steaming cup of tea from the samovar. Dark tea with floating remnants of the tea plant in a glass that had once been used for a yahrzeit candle.
My grandfather put a lump of sugar under his tongue, poured tea from the glass into a saucer and sipped. And in between the sips he talked to me of God, of the God whom he served, of the God whose Torah he lived by.

“There are men who will tell you that they alone have the truth, that their truth is the right truth, the only truth. Avoid such men, mein kind. They are masters of deceit whose tongues drip with sweetness. If you would know the truth, you will find it here”.

And his fingers drummed on an open yellow-faded page of a chumash. The letters were not strange to me. I had always seen them in his home and in my father’s home. But the meaning of the words was still hidden from me. I was then only eight years old and had begun my study of chumash with Rashi a year before.

Grandfather would have me read aloud and would stop me from time to time.

What does it mean?” he would ask. “How are we to understand it?” My grandfather looked for a truth in all things. He had a simple rule in his life…. All things are controlled by God and each one of us has a role to fulfill, a unique mission in our lives. “Zei nit kein rov”, he told me. It’s not necessary to be a rabbi. “Besser zu zein a mensch”…. It is more important to be a good person.

Once I came to visit my grandfather with my father. It was Shabbat and we had walked some distance. At some time during our visit, my father went to the WC and smoked a cigarette which he then tried to get rid of by pulling the flush chain attached to a box on the ceiling. A short time later, grandfather had to go to the windowless bathroom and he smelled the cigarette smoke. When he came back he said nothing but before we left he took my father aside and said to him “My dear son, from me you do not have to hide and from the Kadosh Baruch Hu you can never hide. Remember the laws of Shabbat. Shteit geschriben (they are written down)”.

Grandfather would have nothing to do with the new winds of Jewish liberalism which were sweeping across the Atlantic. We did not know about Reform in our community. While we went to Shul there were others who went to a Temple. It was very strange to us.

And grandfather warned us about avodah zarah, of playing with alien fires, of seeking spiritual warmth from adulterated flames that could not protect against the challenges of a new world in which everyone would “mach shabbes far zich alien”…a society in which each could re-interpret the old laws to suit his new needs. “Do not offer strange fire to the Holy One” grandfather often told us.

Of course, then I knew neither about avodah zarah nor of alien fires.

That was a long, long time ago. Now I have grown older with grownup children and grandchildren of my own. Now I think I understand. And when I speak to them about strange and alien fires, I think I can speak to them about experiences which my grandfather never had.

It happened on the eighth day. A great celebration was in the offing. The sacrificial animals had been prepared and Aaron and his two sons were attending to the great ceremony.

“Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense upon it, and they offered before the Lord alien fire which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them. Thus they died at the instance of the Lord.”

Nadav and Abihu had accompanied their father Aaron and their uncle Moses on Mt. Sinai. They had been devoted sons and seemingly faithful priests. Why then had they deserved so cruel a death?

Why, at the height of greatest rejoicing, were the two young priests slain in an act of supernatural destruction? What, if any, was their guilt? Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explained that the death of Nadav and Abihu was not a result of any formal transgression but lay rather in their desire to approach God NOT in accordance with the prescribed ordinances but rather in conformity with the dictates of their own hearts.

“We may understand the deaths of the sons of Aaron on the eighth day of their consecration as a warning to future generations of priests to avoid personal and subjective predilections and ordinances of their own invention in their approach to the service in the Sanctuary which belongs to God and is governed by His law, and not by any new-fangled innovations introduced into the order of service. Only by observance of the precepts of the Torah can the priest of Israel remain true to his principles.”

Are we then to understand that the order of the service allows no creativity, no variation from the text, no show of affection or zeal in serving God at His altar?

Ibn Ezra tells us that their sin consisted in putting the fire in the censers themselves, rather than depending upon the fire which came down from heaven. Some sages have commented that the sin of Aaron’s two sons lay in the fact that they did not consult with their father Aaron or their uncle Moses, but decided religious questions independently. Had they in fact consulted it is probable that they would not have offered the sacrifice which led to their catastrophic deaths. Youth needs to defer to older wisdom and piety.

It is reported that they suffered the sin of vain pride. Neither son married because they considered no one good enough for them. Professor Louis Ginzberg records their thoughts. “Our father’s brother Moses is king, our father Aaron is High Priest, our mother’s brother Nahshon is prince of his tribe and we are heads of the priests. What woman is worthy of us?”

Rashi informs us that they entered the Sanctuary while in a state of intoxication. They were not in proper condition for offering the sacrifice because they partook of wine which is prohibited to the priests.
“And the Lord spoke unto Aaron saying, ‘drink no wine nor strong drink, thou nor thy sons with thee when you go into the Tent of Meeting, that you die not; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations.”

As I read the story of the two sons of Aaron, I am often pained by the thought that here were two good men who seemed to love God so much that their own zealousness, their haste to serve Him, destroyed them.
But then I realize that to be a true eved Elokim, a servant of the Lord, one needs to follow a rigorous discipline, a set of codes for correct behavior. Nadav and Abihu made their offering in the Holy of Holies, a place which was prohibited to them and their sacrifice was unacceptable because there had been no command by God for an incense offering at that time.

The two young priests were, as it appears, reformers anxious to serve God but to interpret the rules and regulations in their own particular manner. For this, they paid with their lives. And the Torah describes Aaron’s initial reaction to his sons’ death in two words: “vayidom Aharon…” And Aaron held his peace. Aaron, brother of Moses and High Priest of the people of Israel, was in shock, in deepest depression, unable to utter a word, so intense was his paternal grief. Having been anointed on that day, Aaron was prohibited from mourning the deaths of his two sons.

They had died from serving strange fire…alien fire… in the mistaken belief that all religious offerings would be acceptable before God even if He had not asked or commanded it. God’s Torah… His law and teaching… can be most effective if we follow it as He intends for us to do, as far as it is possible.

I do not like labels of religious observance or affiliation. For me, a Jew is a Jew, some more observant of mitzvoth and others less. There is nothing wrong with Judaism that requires it to be reformed or conserved or reconstructed or humanized. Our sacrifices…the prayers of our hearts… can be offered anywhere and God will hear the voice of the sincere Jew “ba asher hu sham”…at the place where he is.

We are judged not for our future deeds but for our present ones, and Jewish morality would dictate that we steer clear of alien fires and warm ourselves instead by the light of Torah.

That is what my grandfather would have told me.

Often, in my mind’s eye, I am visiting with him once again. How I look forward to sipping tea from a saucer once again, lovingly poured from an old memorial candle glass. And maybe…just maybe, you understand…. my beloved grandfather would place another sugar cube under my tongue!

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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