On Wednesday, August 7th, 1974, a 24-year-old Frenchman named Philippe Petit stepped out onto a steel wire strung across the 130-foot gap between the tops of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York — close to 1,350 feet above the ground. After a 45-minute performance he was asked, "Weren't you afraid that you were going to die?" While conceding, he replied, "If I die, what a beautiful death, to die in the exercise of your passion."
Parashat Sh'mini contains the important and troubling story of Nadab and Abihu. It is the eighth day of the ceremony of consecrating the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the priests. Aaron and his sons have been sacrificing animals all week long. Fire comes down from heaven and consumes the offerings, and all is going according to plan. Suddenly Nadab and Abihu, two of Aaron's sons, bring an additional offering of incense, which had not been commanded. They are immediately consumed by Divine fire; their bodies are dragged out of the Mishkan while Aaron remains silent.
Nestled between the laws of offerings and the laws of kashrut, this is a rare narrative section in the Book of Leviticus. This is a difficult story — disobedient priests, a silent father, and a severe God — and commentators debate the precise nature of the sons' transgression, the appropriateness of their punishment, and the justice of the various characters' responses. Without minimizing or ignoring the jarring pain and discomfort that this story may bring up, I want to concentrate on Moses' first response to his brother Aaron in Leviticus 10:3:
This is what the Eternal meant by saying: "Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people."
This is a cryptic oracle, made stranger by the fact that nowhere in the Torah did God actually say this before. The closest statement is in Exodus 29:43, when God tells Moses:
And there [at the Tent of Meeting] I will meet with the Israelites and it shall be sanctified by My Presence.
A midrash on this verse says: "Do not read bich'vodi, 'through My glory,' but bim'chubadai, 'through My gloried ones.' Moses said to Aaron, 'Aaron, my brother! I knew that this House was to be sanctified through the beloved ones of the Omnipresent, but I thought it would be either through me or through you. Now I see that they [Nadab and Abihu] were greater than either of us!' " (Midrash Vayikra Rabbah). Nadab and Abihu, in this interpretation, were motivated by their overwhelming desire to be close to God. No longer perpetrators of a betrayal of biblical law, they are, rather, overcome with religious fervor. This is the approach of the early midrash, Sifra, which states: "Overwhelmed by joy on perceiving the new fire, they sought to redouble their love." Similarly, the 18th century Moroccan kabbalist Chayim ibn Attar, the Or HaChayim, writes in his commentary on our Leviticus verse: "They approached the supernal light out of their great love of the Holy, and thereby died. Thus they died by 'Divine kiss' such as experienced by the perfectly righteous; the difference is only that the righteous die when the Divine kiss approaches them, while [Nadab and Abihu] died by their approaching it."
Rashi — a medieval French rabbi and Torah commentator, who was also a vintner — quotes the Talmud in concluding that Nadab and Abihu died for entering the sanctuary in a state of intoxication. The Chasidic rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter, however, in his 19th century commentary S'fat Emet, understands this as spiritual intoxication. They were drunk on the mysteries of God's Torah, he says. They did it not out of dismissal of Torah but the opposite: out of their passionate love of Torah.
The deaths of Nadab and Abihu are linked both in the Torah itself and by later rabbis with the service of Yom Kippur, where the High Priest does exactly what they did: burn incense in the Holy of Holies. However, the institution of Yom Kippur provides structure and boundaries for that love. Thus our goal is always to find the middle ground, the balance between the drunkenness of spiritual ecstasy, and the sobriety of ritual and responsibility.
When the death-defying Frenchman Philippe Petit was asked, "Why did you do it?" he answered, "There is no why. . . . Life should be lived on the edge. You have to exercise rebellion: to refuse to tape yourself to rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself, to see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge — and then you are going to live your life on a tightrope." Imagine finding a way to fill the structures of our lives with passion and fire.
With thanks to my son Noam Sienna for his insights into this portion.
Rabbi Elyse Goldstein is the founding rabbi of City Shul, downtown Toronto's new Reform congregation. Before that, for twenty years, she was the director of Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning. She is the author/editor of four books on women and Judaism (published by Jewish Lights Publishing).