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Shmini: What Happened to Nadav and Avihu?

Va’yikchu v’nei Aharon, Nadav v’Avihu, ish machtato va’yitnu va’hen esh va’yasimu aleha ketoret va’yakrivu lifnei YHVH esh zarah asher lo tziva otam. Va’tetzei esh milifnei YHVH va’tochal otam va’yamutu lifnei YHVH.

Now Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his incense pan, put fire and incense in them, and brought near to the presence of YHVH unauthorized fire, that had not been prescribed. And fire came forth from the presence of YHVH and consumed them, and they died in the presence of YHVH. (Leviticus 10:1-2)

This is one of the most mystifying passages in the Torah. Why are Nadav and Avihu consumed by YHVH’s fire? Moses and Aaron’s response only adds to the mystery:

Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what YHVH spoke of, saying:

‘Through those who draw near to Me, I will be made holy,

In the presence of the entire people, I will be glorified.’

And Aaron was silent. (10:3)

Why does Moses express no sympathy or grief? Why is Aaron silent? What is their understanding of the import of these deaths?

Moses instructs Aaron’s two remaining sons to carry the bodies of their brothers outside of the camp. YHVH them addresses Aaron directly, and instructs him that he and his sons should never be intoxicated when entering the Tent of Meeting.

Also, immediately prior to Nadav and Avihu’s fatal trespass, the entire people had witnessed the Glory of YHVH, from which a fire descended onto the altar and consumed the offering that Aaron and Moses had elaborately and precisely prepared. The Torah tells us, “the entire people saw, and shouted aloud, and flung themselves on their faces!” (9:24)

We are perhaps given clues as to why Nadav and Avihu were consumed by the holy fire, but no direct explanation. Were they intoxicated? Were they insufficiently respectful of the power of the Divine Presence? The simplest reading of the passage seems to indicate that Nadav and Avihu’s death was a punishment for their transgression, and an object lesson in the ways to properly worship God. This is certainly how many Torah commentators read this story: beware – this is what happens if you don’t follow the rules. Kids, do not play with fire!

There is obvious value in that lesson, but if we end our inquiry there, we once again underestimate the Torah. The Torah is always teaching us about our spiritual quest, as well as our social and moral development. Stories about our interactions with YHVH are meant to be understood metaphorically, as they point to a spiritual reality that can only be hinted at in concrete descriptions. Let’s look elsewhere in Torah for clues to the metaphorical system that might give us a deeper understanding of Nadav and Avihu’s fate.

We find Nadav and Avihu singled out in an earlier passage in Exodus:

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadav And Avihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended [Mount Sinai], and they beheld the God of Israel, under whose feet was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky in its purity. Yet God did not raise a hand against these leaders of Israel; rather, they beheld God, and they ate and drank. (Exodus 24:9-11)

In this remarkable passage, Nadav and Avihu are privileged to join in the most sublime mystical experience: to behold God. This was no ordinary picnic! Rather, some commentators suggest, the leaders of Israel were imbibing God’s Presence, sating their spiritual rather than their physical hunger. And what a vision it is – sapphire and sky blue, clarity and pure bliss! As the psalmist says, “One thing I ask of YHVH, only one thing do I seek: that I might dwell in YHVH’s house and behold with delight the Divine Presence.” (Psalm 27:4)

As a mystical and visionary text, the Torah speaks to that desire in many human beings to experience directly the unfiltered glory of the universe. Mystics from varied cultures and epochs describe this as an experience of oneness, during which one’s individual identity becomes insignificant and even disappears, accompanied by a longing to dissolve separateness entirely and merge forever with this sublime and utterly meaningful mystery. How does one return to ordinary consciousness after experiencing this transcendence? How does one reconcile the coarseness and suffering of everyday life with the bliss of mystical unity?

Moses and Aaron are able to live with this dissonance, or paradox, of awareness. This is what makes them great spiritual leaders and teachers. Moses can come back down from the mountaintop and bring that illuminating wisdom to the world. Aaron can enter the Holy of Holies, and yet emerge whole to minister to and to bless the people. As adepts, they understand that during our discrete lifetimes on earth we somehow must simultaneously live in two realms: the realm of sublime oneness, of holy fire that illuminates all of creation; and the realm of twoness, self and other, life and death, light and dark, or, as Jewish mysticism calls it, this world of broken vessels. As adepts, Moses and Aaron understand that their task while in the land of the living is to resist the temptation to merge with the light, and instead to translate all the light and power and glory of that level of perception into loving and righteous acts in our broken and needy and confounding world. This is one way of describing what Jewish tradition means when it asks us to be “partners with God.”

Nadav and Avihu appear to be of a different ilk. Perhaps after their experience with their father and uncle and the elders on Mount Sinai, their longing to return to that bliss never left them. Now, in this week’s Torah portion, the Tent of Meeting has finally been completed. God’s glorious Presence, beheld last at Mount Sinai, has once again been invoked, and the people react with awe and trembling and exultation. Perhaps Nadav and Avihu cannot restrain their enthusiasm. (In fact, enthusiasm literally means “filled with God” – all that Nadav and Avihu want is to be filled with God.) They enter the Holy of Holies uninvited and unprepared, and offer themselves to the Oneness of mystical union. And they do not return. Perhaps their death is not a punishment, but simply a consequence of their overwhelming desire to be with the light, to the exclusion of their attachments to this world of broken vessels. Perhaps, from their perspective, their death is not even a death, but a blissful return. Perhaps we will all reach this destination one day, and finally understand that our fears of death were unfounded.

But in the meantime, the Torah instructs Aaron that henceforth no one should enter the Tent of Meeting in an intoxicated state. Again, I think this is a metaphor for spiritual rather than physical intoxication. One can be so “God-intoxicated” that when entering the rarified realm of the Tent of Meeting one could lose one’s bearings, drunk with Divine love. One could become confused that our purpose and goal is to remain in this dissociated state, rather than to remember and understand that the purpose of this bliss is not for self-satiation, but rather to become a channel of blessing so that one can be a source of satiation to others. To be a source of blessing to the world one must learn to remain simultaneously grounded and elevated, bridging both realms. Nadav and Avihu never learned how to keep their feet on the ground. As a result, they were “blown away” by the holy fire. It was not their bodies that were consumed by that metaphorical flame, but their souls.

The tale of Nadav and Avihu is indeed a cautionary one, but I think it is especially directed to spiritual seekers. Judaism does not privilege the spiritual realm over the physical realm. Or, as one might say in more traditional God-language: God didn’t create the world in order for us to transcend it, but that we might be bring godliness into it. As Rabbi Larry Kushner expresses it in one of my favorite passages from his classic book on Jewish spirituality, Honey from the Rock (p. 134):

And such indeed is the mark of any would-be Jewish spirituality: that the way to God only comes through religious doing. And that religious doing can only occur in this world. And for this reason this world is holy, too. For some searchers it is a necessary evil, something to cast off. For us it is the only way of ascending to other worlds. It is not a stumbling block or obstacle that must be avoided. It is the very way itself. It is not our way, our goal as the children of Jacob, to leave this world of broken vessels and misplaced love. But rather to go out to it.

Shabbat Shalom and love,

Rabbi Jonathan