April 17, 2020
23 Nisan, 5780
In this week's Torah portion, Parashat Shemini, we read:
“And Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aaron, each took his fire pan and put fire and incense upon them, and offered strange fire before God, which God had not commanded them. And a fire issued forth from before God and devoured them, and they died before God.”
Why did Nadav and Avihu meet such an ignoble end? Though some commentators assume their fiery demise represented Divine punishment, a close reading of these verses indicates otherwise.
Note that the text does not read in the active, “God sent forth a fire…” but rather in the passive: “a fire issued forth from before God…” This seems to indicate that the consuming fire was a kind of involuntary cosmic reflex – an inevitable consequence triggered by Nadav and Avihu’s failure to properly follow their “Priestly Instruction Manual.” In this regard, perhaps the most basic lesson of Parashat Shemini might be simply: “When you play with fire, you get burned.”
On a deeper level, however, this troubling episode has something important to teach us about the high stakes of spiritual leadership. As priests, Nadav and Avihu ministered in the Tabernacle – a place that was seen to be the central locus of Divine power. Thus they are cautioned repeatedly in the Torah to handle this system with appropriate care: to wear the proper clothes, to handle the sacrifices in a certain way, and especially, to use the “commanded” fire – the fire from the eternally lit altar in the Tabernacle.
It is also important to note that the altar was not simply the place upon which animal sacrifices were offered – it also served as a place of sanctuary for those fleeing from unjust punishment or harm (see Exodus 21:14). By introducing strange or alien fire into the altar, it might be said that Nadav and Avihu were violating the safety and protection of this sacred space. In so doing, they demonstrated a notable disrespect for the latent power that came with their job as priests.
Though the institution of the Israelite priesthood no longer exists, the model of spiritual leadership represented by Aaron and his sons is still powerfully relevant to us today. Like the ancient priests, our spiritual leaders are vouchsafed a great deal of power. And like Nadav and Avihu, they abuse this power at their peril.
The Torah will later go on to demonstrate how the actions of Nadav and Avihu actually put the entire Israelite community at risk. In a subsequent portion we'll read about a complex ritual of atonement their father Aaron must perform to ensure the safety of the Israelite nation at large.
I don't need to spell out how the ominous relevance of this week's Torah portion to this current moment of pandemic: a time in which our leaders are playing with fire in the most flagrant and deadly of ways.
What is the proper "instruction manual" for leaders in times such as these? What is the role of the community in holding our leaders accountable? We'll be talking about these very questions at Torah study tomorrow morning - and invite you to participate in this sacred conversation.
Rabbi Brant Rosen