In this week's double parashah, Acharei Mot/K'doshim, there's a one-sentence reference to the mortal sin of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, who brought "alien fire" into the Mishkan, which we read about in Parashat Sh'mini two weeks ago (see Leviticus 10:1-7). Here, as an introduction to the regulations regarding the Yom Kippur offerings, we read, "The Eternal One spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Eternal" (Leviticus 16:1). Rabbi Bamberger writes, "Probably the sentence means simply, 'They broke the rules and were punished' " (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed. [New York: URJ Press, 2005], p. 770).
But it's difficult for me to ignore the words, "drew too close to the presence of the Eternal." We can certainly imagine how the brothers might have done that, and why they got into such trouble for it. But I can't help wondering what that would mean for us today. After all, Reform Judaism in the twenty-first century has become so much more of a spiritual quest. Isn't "the presence of the Eternal" the aim of our religious strivings? What would it mean for you or me to draw "too close" to God?
Interestingly, the Hebrew doesn't say "too close." B'korvatam means, "in their coming close." Does this mean Nadab and Abihu died because they sought any closeness to God? Or was it only the means they employed to achieve that moment's particular closeness that lead to their demise?
It's so fascinating to me that our ancestors felt there was a place (the Mishkan) where one could draw close to God. More typically, people in every age seem to think of God as being "up in heaven," nowhere near us. And yet, isn't God's nearness what we long for, what we pray for?
I took a walk through the siddur, looking for prayers that ask God to come close to us. I kept in mind Moses's request to see God's face (Exodus 33:18-23), and how he had to hide in the cleft of the rock to survive that experience. In the daytime prayer, Ashrei, there appears a passage from Psalm 145, "Adonai is near to all who call" (Ashrei prayer, Mishkan T'filah, Elyse D. Frishman, ed. [New York: CCAR, 2007], p. 54). In the prayer, R'tzei, we find the same: "God who is near to all who call" (ibid., p. 92).
And that's it. In general, the siddur doesn't have us ask God to come near. Do we prefer God to remain at a distance or do we simply resign ourselves to that likelihood? We certainly seek out God, but across the generations, it hasn't been God's closeness that we've asked for. Our sense of God's Presence has always been bound up in our sense of the world's well-being. We pray for shelter, for sustenance, and for peace. If we were given a choice between a personal visit from God, and an end to violence and unrest across the globe, could there be any doubt about our answer?
The prayer, Hashkiveinu, may better express the Jewish take on God's closeness: "Grant, O God, that we lie down in peace, and raise us up, our Guardian, to life renewed. Spread over us the shelter of Your peace. Guide us with Your good counsel; for Your name's sake, be our help. Shield and shelter us beneath the shadow of Your wings. Defend us against enemies, illness, war, famine and sorrow. Distance us from wrongdoing" (ibid., p.160).
Our prayers ask for goodness to surround us. That's all the evidence of God's closeness that Judaism thinks we need. Aaron's sons wanted to see God's face, something even Moses couldn't do. When our ideas about God become too physical, too anthropomorphic, too fundamentalist, perhaps that's when we offer "alien fire" and go looking for God in the wrong places.
I admit, however, that I've wanted to see God's face, to feel God's closeness, too. And looking back over my life, I wonder if maybe I have? Did I sense God's closeness when I climbed (what is traditionally considered) Mount Sinai and, at the top, my friend (now rabbi) Arnie Sleutelberg blew the shofar? Did I sense God's closeness when I was driving home from the URJ Goldman Camp with (then director) Rabbi Ron Klotz, and we missed hitting only by inches a person who'd been standing in the middle of the highway? Did I sense God's closeness when I married my wife Ellen or when she gave birth to our children? Did I sense God's closeness when those children were old enough to join me in hiking the exquisite trails of New York's Watkins Glen? Maybe.
But if I had to pick one moment when I knew God was nearby, it would be February 2007, when members of my synagogue, along with folks from a couple of neighboring churches, drove the roads of Ocean Springs, Mississippi, to assist families that were climbing out from beneath the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. These roads that had once ferried the hateful, violent proponents of a racist and anti-Semitic America, now brought Jews and Christians together to rebuild homes and lives. Black and white were colors we saw only in paint cans; on people's faces, we saw only our brothers and sisters.
Dear God, although it may be impossible for us to behold Your Presence, don't think we don't know You're there. You've built such an extraordinary universe, and You've done so within the constraints of natural law. Because You play by the rules, You make it challenging, even exasperating, to proclaim Your greatness. But these rules-laws that govern all physical existence-are as awesome as any sea You may have split, any sun You may have stilled, any scripture You may have revealed. It does us good to see ourselves as Your partners. In whatever manner You set life in motion (and our greatest minds are doing everything they can to figure that out), You'll need our help if life's to continue on a healthy path. We yearn to taste infinity, to remember what it was like to have been One with You. May we have the courage, imagination, and love...to return as much unity to Your Creation as is humanly possible. We probably won't even come close to touching infinity, but we can do a lot of good along the way.
Billy Dreskin is a rabbi at Woodlands Community Temple near White Plains, New York. You can contact him at RabbiBillyDreskin@gmail.com.