Alien Fire

Sh'mini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, PhD

The very title of this parashah warns us that something is different, for it begins with a surprising phrase: "On the eighth day [Va-y'hi bayom hashmini ] Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel" (Leviticus 9:1). The commentators tell us that this was the eighth day of the installation of the priests, which coincided with the New Moon of Nisan (Rashi on Leviticus 9:1). What does the eighth day mean? We are the people of seven: six days of work crowned by one day of rest. Did the seven days of consecration include Shabbat? Or, like aveilut, "mourning," are the days of priestly installation counted around Shabbat, excluding Shabbat? What is the eighth day? Is this the eighth consecutive day of celebration, or the day after a seven-day ceremony, as suggested by Lisbeth S. Fried (see The Torah: A Women's Commentary, ed. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi [New York: URJ Press, 2008] p. 617)?

This portion includes the difficult story of the "alien," "strange," or "foreign" fire offered by Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, an offering that results in their sudden and violent death. Throughout the ages, Torah commentators have wrestled with the meaning of this unexpected and troubling incident. Nadab and Abihu first appear in Exodus 24:1 (Parashat Mishpatim) where God invites Moses, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and the elders of Israel to ascend to meet the Eternal. The seventy-four men then "saw the God of Israel . . . they beheld God, and they ate and drank" (Exodus 24:9-11). We meet the two brothers again in Sh'mini, immediately after another direct encounter with the Holy One: "Moses and Aaron . . . went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the Eternal appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from before the Eternal and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces" (Leviticus 9:23-24).

God's fire mysteriously appears and the people are overwhelmed. And the text continues, without a break: "Now Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Eternal alien fire, which had not been enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Eternal and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Eternal" (Leviticus 10:1-2).

How are we to read this terrifying passage? Eish zarah, (Leviticus 10:1), translated in The Torah: A Modern Commentary (rev. ed. [New York: URJ Press, 2005], p. 709) as "alien fire,"is also translated as "unfitting fire," "unauthorized fire," or "outside fire," in sources such as Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003, p. 340) and others. Friedman explains that this fire is "simply something that is outside the realm of what is permitted . . . they have failed to observe a boundary, so their fate is settled." The young priests "played with fire," and their behavior led to their death.

Nehama Leibowitz teaches: "The true motivation of this divine act of retribution has puzzled all our commentators, down the ages." She cites Vayikra Rabbah 20: "For four things did the two sons of Aaron die: For the drawing near, and for the sacrifice, for the strange fire and for not consulting with each other." These two men, who had been privileged to see God face to face, were perhaps so dazzled by the Holy Presence that they thought that they could once again approach the Holy One and present an offering of their own. And in the heat of their passion, they did not even speak to one another about their audacious plan. Leibowitz quotes the Biur: "Nadab and Abihu were religious personalities of the highest order . . . out of a superabundance of joy they lost their heads and entered the Holy of Holies . . . [they] should have been more careful 'walking humbly before their God' . . . " (Studies in Vayikra/Leviticus [Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1985], p. 66).

What is "alien fire" for us? What draws us in with a power so irresistible that we risk our own immolation? How do we distinguish between legitimate and "unfitting" fire? Like Nadab and Abihu, religious leaders throughout history have thought they have been invited to stand in God's presence and then have crossed boundaries that have led them into an inferno. For the Talmudic sage Elisha ben Abuya, alien fire was Greek thought (Jerusalem Talmud, Chagigah 2:1; Babylonian Talmud, Chagigah, 14b-15b).

In our day, some individuals who come into sacred service lose their way because of a perverted sense of privilege and the misapprehension that they are exempt from communal norms and boundaries. Others suffer from an arrogance that prevents them from seeing others as created, as they are, in God's image. Some mistake fire in their bodies as divine and beyond their control. Others become inflamed with ideas they pursue in ways that cause harm to themselves and others. Are religious leaders, whether or not they claim to be heirs to Nadab and Abihu, particularly vulnerable to fire's power to destroy individuals, entire communities, and many hopes and dreams?

Judaism and Jewish community are sustained by the preservation of boundaries, just as Judaism is sustained by our questioning and wrestling with those boundaries. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi teaches: "Leviticus aims to shape the Israelites into a holy people and to safeguard the purity that it considers essential for contact with the holy. . .  To preserve God's orderly world, where everything has an assigned place, Leviticus specifies what must be done whenever boundaries are wrongfully crossed . . ." (The Torah: A Women's Commentary, p. 567). Our challenge as moderns is to read this deeply troubling tale and attempt to wrest meaning from it. Perhaps the eighth day is the day on which we pose questions-questions that can carry us into and through the fiery words of our beloved text, questions that increase our ability to live in our overheated world, discerning when to approach, when to consult, and when to walk humbly before God.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., spent nearly two decades working with synagogue leaders to keep congregations healthy and vibrant through the Union for Reform Judaism. The founding director of the Los Angeles Jewish Feminist Center and the first rabbinic director of Ma'yan: The Jewish Women's Program of the JCC of Manhattan, Elwell served as editor of Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation (2001), The Open Door: A Passover Haggadah (2002), poetry editor of the award winning The Torah: A Women's Commentary (2008), and as editor of Chapters of the Heart (2013). She continues her rabbinate through study, teaching, writing, and as a Spiritual Director.

When There Are No Answers

Daver Acher By: Debra Hachen

Tragic sudden death like that of Aaron's sons leaves us asking: Why? The commentators sought to find the cause of this disaster in the wrongful actions of the two priests themselves. As Rabbi Elwell reveals, if we identify the error of Nadab and Abihu, we can learn lessons about controlling passion, consulting others, and humility. We can wrest meaning from a disturbing passage.

Ultimately, we need to address why it is disturbing. The Torah and the sages might have seen these deaths as retribution, but do we? Is that the world we live in today-a world where a punishing God metes out judgment and shortens the lives of those who ignore God's laws? Hopefully, we have moved beyond that theology. Yet there is something attractive about it. If we can discern the human moral error that brought on God's punishment, then we can change our behavior and keep that punishment from coming down on us the next time. However, if most tragic deaths are caused by complex chains of events that are not controlled by God, then how can we protect ourselves in a frightening world?

We cannot, except in a limited way. We can obey traffic laws to avoid car accidents. We can eat healthy food and exercise to keep our bodies strong. We can take precautions to avoid dangerous people and places. Tragedy will still touch our loved ones and neighbors, for we live in an imperfect and limited world. Where then is God? We do not see God in the fire that leaps from the altar and takes the lives of Nadab and Abihu. We find God in the actions after their deaths: when their cousins gently remove their bodies from the tent and when the Israelites support a grieving Aaron by weeping for his dead sons (Leviticus 10:4-7). Perhaps we cannot find God in the tragedy of death, but we can embrace the God that gifted us with compassion instead of answers.

Rabbi Debra Hachen is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El of Northern Valley, Closter, New Jersey.

Reference Materials

Sh’mini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 798-823; Revised Edition, pp. 705-727; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 615-636