B. Shira Levine
Navigating new wilderness

The Torah’s Icarus Moment

AI image generated by me after having a long conversation with ChatGPT about this topic... but I didn't end up using any of ChatGPT's text in the blog!

The story of Nadab and Abihu reminds me of the Icarus myth in Greek mythology. From Wikipedia: “Daedalus fashioned two pairs of wings for himself and his son, made of metal feather held to a leather frame by beeswax. Before trying to escape the island, he warned his son to follow his path of flight and not fly too close to the sun or too close to the sea, but, overcome by giddiness while flying, Icarus disobeyed his father and soared higher into the sky. Without warning, the heat from the sun softened –and melted– the beeswax (which Icarus could feel dripping down his arms). Then the feathers fell (one by one). Icarus kept flapping his “wings” trying to stay aloft, but he realized that he had no feathers left and that he was flapping his bare arms. He also saw loose feathers and they were falling like snowflakes. Finally, he ultimately fell into the sea, sank to the bottom, and drowned.”

Icarus and the admonishment not to “fly too close to the sun” gets invoked a lot in popular culture when discussing human flaws in decision making and risk assessment. 

Are Nadab and Abihu our tradition’s Icarus? Torah commentators certainly invoke similar themes: hubris, disobedience, getting lost in a moment. And both serve a similar purpose, as “cautionary tales”–the parsha even describes this encounter as having sanctified HaShem with the example. But there is something unsatisfying about the brothers’ fate: at least Icarus got a clear and explicit warning not to fly too close to the sun. His tragedy is lamentable but foreseeable, and seems to reflect a sense of normative justice. Deviating from a proscribed flight path is a risk we can see was avoidable, making the lesson one we can incorporate.  

Not so much with the strange fire in Parshat Shemini. There is no Daedalus figure warning the brothers against bringing that fire or even against taking initiative. There is merely the noted absence of a commandment to bring that fire and the implication that they should have known better: “Eysh Zara asher lo tzivah otam.” “Fire | alien | that | not | commanded | to them” / “strange fire that they were not commanded to bring.”  

Why would what seems to us like a harmless misstep reap such immediate and final consequences? The brothers weren’t hurting anyone, and they weren’t violating any clear moral norms. To the contrary, commentaries suggest that their strange fire resulted from a religious fervor and a genuine desire to worship and please God. In their hearts, they were going above and beyond; God thought they were going out of line. 

This seems like a pretty high burden; not only are we to avoid things God has told us not to do, but we must avoid things God hasn’t told us to do. Are we truly meant never to take initiative or make a decision? 

One could respond that such a broad interpretation is unwarranted; by this point in the Torah, God’s made pretty clear that the reason God enjoys the odor of the sacrifices isn’t because of anything objectively pleasant about the “reiach nichoach” / “pleasing scent” – but because we are doing what God has commanded us to do.  Sacrifices just aren’t something about which can in good faith “take initiative.” Put otherwise: since the whole point of sacrifices is to demonstrate obedience to God–any sacrifice that wasn’t spelled out by God is an inherent desecration. Offering it is sending God a message that we think we know better than God what God wants from us. That type of arrogance, even focused on God, is a slippery slope leading to idolatry, of the sort that had just led to the spiritual downfall of the community. As such, the point is less about taking initiative generally, and more about taking initiative on behalf of God.

Applying this teaching today poses additional challenges. Today, prayer is our substitute for sacrifice–what is a “strange fire” when it comes to prayer? We can tell ourselves not to do anything God didn’t tell us to, but God isn’t commanding us directly, so there are few unequivocal answers. And finally, we might be experiencing spiritual punishment when we get it wrong, but we aren’t being consumed instantly in Divine smoke so as to make the cause and effect of an action clear.

I’ll offer a couple of suggested takeaways:

  • Impact versus intent – it is our duty to consider the impact of our actions and not rely on our pure intentions. We can’t rely on someone to give us a direct warning: “Do not deviate from the flight path.” We have to seek out that warning ourselves and anticipate the consequences. 
  • Humility – Nadab and Abihu thought they knew everything. They didn’t think they needed to consult anyone; they may have even thought that God did command them to do it, lacking humility in their own discernment of God’s desires. If you’re going to act for the sake of God, be darn sure that you are acting for the sake of God. 
  • Power awareness – Commentaries point out that Nadab and Abihu were punished in part because they, as priests and sons of the High Priest, should have known better; taking it upon themselves to make strange fire set a bad precedent and a bad example. If someone less powerful had set the fire, perhaps God would not have imposed this punishment. Indeed, in terms of today’s sacrifices of “prayer,” our tradition similarly imposes certain standards of observance and morality on a shaliach tzibur, “representative of the congregation” or prayer leader, that are not imposed on the congregation itself.
  • Deliberation – If nothing else, the tragic fates of Nadab and Abihu suggest: slow down. Had Nadab and Abihu asked Aaron, wouldn’t Aaron have prevented them from acting? If they had even spoken with each other, or insisted on an analytical process before jumping to follow their hearts, would they have reconsidered? Or interestingly, perhaps if they had considered the strangeness of the fire, reflected deliberatively about it, and went ahead with it anyway based on genuine but mistaken reasoning, God would have had mercy on them for their error? 

As Jews, we are subject to an all-encompassing commandment to act in service of God–and Parshat Shemini teaches us that we have to be extremely judicious and may not substitute our own judgment for God’s. This is why our tradition insists on critical reflection, down to the minutiae of matters for which the spiritual significance may not be obvious. We are about process, not just result. We are about impact, not just purity of heart. Beautiful kavanah (spiritual intention) is no excuse for glossing over analysis, or for neglecting humility. We must not only serve God at all times, but we must at all times question whether what we do to serve God does, in fact, serve God. In carrying out swift justice on Nadab and Abihu, God gives us our warning about flying too close to the sun: in carrying out God’s will, we must always strive to transcend our emotions, biases, passions,  traumas, and fears.

Whenever we–in claiming to assert ourselves on God’s behalf–allow ourselves to become overcome with these manifestations of the yetzer hara (animal soul)… we make strange fire.

About the Author
B. Shira Levine writes about Jewish spirituality and observance, parenting, intersectionality, and the U.S. and Atlanta Jewish communities. Views are her own and not those of her employer, synagogues, or any other organization.
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