Approaching The Divine: The tragedy of Nadav and Avihu

This week’s Torah portion, Shemini is from the book of Leviticus and deals with a very strange and tragic incident: Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s two oldest sons, while laying incense on fire that they brought to the alter were consumed by that fire.

The Torah does not give us any reason for the unexpected death of Aaron’s two sons. What caused this terrible response from the Deity, and what was is this strange fire that Nadav and Avihu offered? There have been a myriad of opinions offered by Rabbinic commentators throughout the ages. Philo of Alexandria, a leading Jewish scholar of classical antiquity, blamed Nadav and Avihu’s religious enthusiasm and emotional immaturity for their tragic death. Others believed that in their haste to serve God they neglected to follow the proper rules of ritual engagement. None of these reasons however appear in the Torah. A few commentators focus on the alien fire that Nadav and Avihu brought to the altar. Maybe Nadav and Avihu unintentionally brought fire from an altar dedicated to a god other than God. Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam), a leading French medieval commentator seems to support this view. All these commentaries however are examples of the Rabbinic imagination at work creatively attempting to ‘fill the gaps’ in the narrative.  

It is interesting that the verse describes Nadav and Avihu first bringing ‘fire’ and only later in that verse claiming that it was ‘strange fire.’ “Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it, and they offered alien fire before God….” (Lev, 10:1) 

Biblical scholars generally agree that members of the Priestly caste wrote the book of Leviticus. Most of it was probably composed during the time of the Babylonian exile or in the preceding decades.

It is possible however, that a group of Priests who traced their lineage to Aaron’s younger sons: Eleazer and Ithamar, had a motive for writing Nadav and Avihu out of the narrative. Eleazer, was appointed High Priest in the wake of Aaron’s death, a position Nadav or Avihu would have likely inherited had they lived. Priestly political intrigues aside, there is a deep truth that Philo’s commentary sheds light upon. 

All of us long for true authentic relationships. This is how we experience the Divine in the world and in our lives. We know when we are experiencing this authenticity, we feel it is epiphanous and transformative. In our hunger for connection, we often don’t approach another person with the emotional sensitivity and maturity that a true relationship demands. The story of Nadav and Avihu is a reminder to us all that passionate longing for true connection, admirable as it is, is not enough. It can even be dangerous, like the fire that consumed Nadav and Avihu. They approached God with their fire that in Philo’s view was a metaphor for their intense desire to be close to God.  However, it was an alien fire, not an offering or approach that was acceptable to God. They were not emotionally and spiritually prepared for the encounter. 

Fire can consume with a raging flame, as was the case with Nadav and Avihu, or lead to a divine encounter and change the course of a person’s life, as was the case with Moses. Moses did not encounter his fire burning on a grand magnificent altar or in a majestic sacred space. He saw it burning in a small unremarkable bush in the middle of a bleak and arid landscape. Furthermore, this fire did not consume Moses or the bush. He understood it’s meaning. It set him on a path to become a great Prophet and freedom fighter. 

There is a flame that consumes and one that nurtures us and leads us to seek our true purpose in life. May that flame guide us all and may we see the divine face in all our relationships.

Rabbi George Mordecai

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