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).
When are you a priest? When are you a prophet? These questions present a constant tension for liberal Jews. When do we maintain what was passed down to us? When do we strike out on a bold new path? In Covenant & Conversation, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks lifts up the priests Nadab and Abihu, and their "strange fire," as examples of those who misunderstood their role and moment. Sacks uses the images of priest and prophet to set out a tension, as he writes: "The priest serves God in a way that never changes over time. . . . The prophet serves God in a way that is constantly changing over time."1 The priest attests to what is enduring and ritualized, while the prophet must be spontaneous and take his or her own initiative.
These are different forms of religious leadership, yet both are needed in our movement. Anyone who suggests one should be lifted above the other misunderstands our history and our mission as Reform Jews. Yet, knowing when to be priests and when to be prophets is our constant struggle. It lies at the heart of our biggest questions of the day.
Will we allow a faction of the extreme-left that is overrun by anti-Israel sentiment to push us out of social justice spaces? How do we retain a level of Jewish expression in our camps if we lose children to more secular spaces? What is the right balance in our religious schools between Jewish identity and Jewish literacy? Should we ordain rabbinical students who are in interfaith relationships? How far do we transform ourselves in a quest to engage millennials?
We must ensure that Judaism is able to speak to the world in which we live. We also must tend the ties that link us to K'lal Yisrael and our Reform heritage. Nadab and Abihu, in their fervor, seem to have misread their moment. And yet the question remains throughout the centuries: should we offer up our customary offering or create strange fire?
1. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Covenant & Conversation, Leviticus: The Book of Holiness (Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, 2015), p. 150
Rabbi Ari S. Lorge is assistant rabbi at Central Synagogue in New York, NY.
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
Haftarah, Ezekiel 36:22-36
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,651−1,652; Revised Edition, pp. 1,455−1,456