In the first half of Parashat Sh’mini (Leviticus 9:1-10:11), we read about the awful fate of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. As sons of the High Priest, we would assume that the boys would know their way around holy matters. But, Nadab and Abihu brought an eish zarah, an “alien fire” as an offering to God, and “fire came forth from the Eternal and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord” (Leviticus 10:1-2). The juxtaposition of their heinous act with what follows in Leviticus 10:8-9, “And the Eternal One spoke to Aaron, saying: Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die,” leads us to the conclusion that the boys were drunk when they entered the Tent of Meeting. It was an obvious offense, but it wasn’t the only one.
Rashi, citing Rabbi Eliezer (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 63a), teaches us that Nadab and Abihu died “only because they gave decisions on religious matters in the presence of their teacher, Moses.” The Gemara (Talmud) asks:
Is the disciple not liable to receive the death penalty if he issues his ruling not in the teacher’s presence?
This is the defining issue, whether or not the sons erred in their judgment because they were — or were not — in the presence of their teacher, Moses. Rabbi Eliezer presents the issue for us:
The sons of Aaron died only because they issued a halachic ruling before Moses, their teacher? What did they expound in support of their conclusion that they must bring fire inside as opposed to waiting for fire to come down from the heavens? It is (already) stated in the Torah: ‘And the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire on the altar and lay the wood in order on the fire’ (Leviticus 1:7), which led [the sons] to say: Although fire descends from Heaven, it is nonetheless a mitzvah to bring ordinary fire.
Rabbi Eliezer concludes that although the sons derived their judgment from what they were commanded to do, “put fire on the altar and lay the wood in order on the fire,” they were punished for deriving a ruling in the presence of Moses, their teacher. And, what if one rules not in the presence of one’s teacher? Rava taught:
When he is not in the presence of his teacher, the student is prohibited to issue a ruling, but he is not liable to receive the death penalty [from Heaven] (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 63a).
After the boys were consumed by fire, Moses says to Aaron, “This is what was meant by saying, ‘Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.’ ” Then Torah records, “Aaron was silent” (Leviticus 10:3). Aaron’s stunning silence has astonished readers ever since. Perhaps it’s the finality of God’s decree. Perhaps Aaron’s grief over his sons is not recorded. Perhaps it’s the finality we’ve all felt at times in our life when “we didn’t see it coming” or “we should have known better.”
Today, the “fear of heaven” doesn’t prevent us from deciding how we will choose to observe mitzvot for ourselves. Even so, there is an underlying principle found in our parashah that still guides us to choose wisely and unambiguously. In Leviticus 10:9-11, we learn, “This is a law for all time throughout the ages, for you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the impure and the pure; and you must teach the Israelites all the laws which the Eternal has imparted to them through Moses.”
Forever choosing between the “sacred and the profane,” and the “impure and the pure,” distinguishes us from those who would choose it all. The separation we make by choosing wisely places us on a straight path in concert with God’s covenant. It isn’t a formula for safety or prevention from tragedy; but, it does contribute to our mindfulness about our sacred obligations to our covenant with God.
In Torah, we’re called an am kadosh, a “holy people,” and an am s’gulah, a “treasured people” (see Leviticus 19:2, Exodus 19:5). These honors are not claims made lightly; they’re based on obligations that place us in a trusted relationship with God. Dr. Eugene B. Borowitz (z”l) taught that our covenant with God can orient us toward deciding and choosing well. The benefit is right and good living. Even if we fail, an integral part of our covenant, today, is the permission to repair our way and try again. Borowitz taught:
When we seek God as a partner in every significant act we invest our deciding and doing with direction, hope, worth, and, in failure, the possibility of repair.1
Though the parashah sees Aaron and his sons as holding high positions with commensurate standards for sacred living, we are, thankfully, not a kingdom of priests. We are also not an Israelite camp set apart by divisions that are holier than others. We are a Reform Jewish community that invests in the well-being and inclusion of all people. Those who bind their fate to ours by studying Torah, worshiping Adonai, and supporting the people Israel, have an equal responsibility to observe ritual and perform ethical mitzvot.
This portion of Parashat Sh’mini highlights the standards by which we may choose to live our lives and the consequences of those choices. Blessings find us when we avail ourselves of good choices; but, tragedy falls even on the unaware and innocent among us. Rather than condemn the biblical story for its severity, we would do better to accept the fact that our choices always have consequences and — to the extent that we can — to choose well.
1. Eugene B. Borowitz, Renewing the Covenant: A Theology for the Postmodern Jew (New York: JPS, 1991), p.169
Rabbi David A. Lyon is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, TX. Rabbi Lyon serves on the Board of Trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and chairs its professional development committee. He can be heard on “iHeart-Radio” KODA 99.1 FM, every Sunday at 6:45 a.m. CT, and is the author of God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime (Jewish Lights 2011) available on Amazon.com.