A Time for Obedience, A Time for Spontaneity: Why did Nadav and Avihu Die? D’var Torah for Parashat Shemini

Published Apr 9, 2021
Aryeh Bernstein speaking with his hand raised outward

The last two shabbatot were filled with so much excitement, through our annual Pesach excursion into the exodus story, that we may forget that when last we left our regular, weekly journey through the Torah, we left on one of the Torah’s most dramatic, if underappreciated, cliffhangers. This week resolves that tension with perhaps the most emotional whiplash in the Torah, the successful inauguration of God’s home, with God’s explosive, physical inhabitation thereof, followed by the same Divine fire incinerating two priests exercising ecstatic devotion. What are we supposed to learn from the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s two sons killed at the altar?

The cliffhanger: the entire people having donated abundant goods for the construction of the Mishkan, God’s portable home, and the artisans having constructed it, Moshe having dressed Aharon and sons in their priestly vestments, Aharon and sons having offered the preparatory offerings on the outside, Parashat Tzav closed with Moshe instructing Aharon and his four sons to sit tight in a seven-day rehearsal quarantine vigil to prepare for inaugurating the Mishkan (Leviticus/VaYikra 8:33-36). For three weeks now, we’ve waited anxiously outside this vigil, wondering whether the inauguration will work: will God find a home among us? Our parasha picks right up on the morning of the eighth day, with Moshe giving detailed instructions with a clear purpose: “This is the thing that YHWH has commanded you do, that the Glory of YHWH may appear to you” (Leviticus/VaYikra 9:6). Aharon and his sons meticulously fulfill them: blood, sacrifices, the whole nine yards. And it works! “And Moshe and Aharon came into the Tent of Meeting and went out and blessed the people, and the Glory of YHWH appeared to all the people. And a fire went out from before YHWH and consumed on the altar the burnt offering and the fat, and all the people saw, and shouted with joy, and fell on their faces” (ibid., 23-24). Can you imagine the exhilaration and relief felt by a community who thought it had been abandoned by a disgusted God after the Golden Calf? Immediately in that thrilling moment, “And the sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, took each man his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it, and they brought forward before YHWH alien fire, which [God] had not commanded them. And fire came forth from YHWH and consumed them, and they died before YHWH” (ibid., 1-2). 


{Blank space to breathe and reflect.}


What do we make of the death of Nadav and Avihu? It feels like it’s very important to learn from an overwhelming event like that, but the precise lesson has been surprisingly elusive. The Torah refers to this episode a couple of other times, perhaps complicating more than clarifying our attempts to derive a lesson. Six chapters later, the sanctuary purging ritual, which is associated with Yom Kippur, opens, “And YHWH spoke to Moshe after the death of the two sons of Aaron, who came forward before YHWH and died. And YHWH said to Moshe, “Speak to Aharon your brother, that he not come at all times into the Sacred Zone within the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for in the cloud I shall appear over the cover” (Leviticus 16:1-2). Later, when the Torah gives a genealogy of the priestly family and mentions Nadav and Avihu, it adds, “But Nadav and Avihu died before YHWH, when they brought forward alien fire before YHWH in the wilderness of Sinai; and they had no children” (Bemidbar/Numbers 3:4). Perhaps we should draw insight from God’s direct words to Aharon immediately after his sons are killed and Moshe instructed the cousins to remove the corpses: “And YHWH spoke to Aharon, saying: 9 Wine and liquor do not drink, you and your sons with you, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die; this is an eternal law for your generations, and to  distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the impure and the pure; and to teach the Israelites all the laws which YHWH has spoken to them by the hand of Moshe” (Leviticus/VaYikra 10:8-11). God always speaks to Aharon either through Moshe or along with Moshe; perhaps this unusual direct commandment, at this shocking moment, is in direct reaction to what just transpired.

The Rabbinic tradition, from its earliest stages until today, has also struggled to pin down the lesson. Just among early Rabbis of the formative 3rd century, we find the following views:

  • Rabbi ‘Akiva focused on the “alien fire” and explained that they were punished for coals from an unsanctioned, unsanctified, profane source (Midrash Sifra, Shemini, Miluim 2:32);
  • Rabbi Yishma‘el, in one place, rejects R. ‘Akiva and focuses on “which [God] had not commanded them”: it’s not that the fire source they brought was any different than the successful ones brought before. It’s that they brought it on their own volition, without being instructed to do so (ibid.);
  • Rabbi Yisma‘el, in a different place, explains that Nadav and Avihu must have been drunk when they entered; hence God’s immediate intervention to tell Aharon that no one may do priestly service drunk (Sifra, Aharei Mot, 1:5).
  • Rabbi Yossi HaGellili reads Leviticus 16:1 to teach that “they died on account of their drawing near, not on account of their offering” (Sifra, Aharei Mot, 1:2). They crossed a boundary and drew too near to the Divine, when they weren’t supposed to.
  • Rabbi Eli‘ezer teaches that their sin was “teaching halakha in front of their teacher”: they had a reason for bringing the fire they brought; they thought it was called for by Torah law, but Moshe is right there and it was an affront to his leadership to innovate and model a new interpretation of protocol in his presence (Talmud Bavli, ‘Eruvin 63a).
  • An anonymous view, similarly, teaches that their sin was that they didn’t show respect to Aharon, nor consult with Moshe, nor even with each other! They weren’t objectively too close and their offering was not objectively wrong; they just acted impetuously, not thinking before they acted, not seeking a second opinion (Sifra, Shemini, Miluim 2:32);
  • Another anonymous view says that there was nothing at all untoward about this offering, but Nadav and Avihu had been condemned to die at this moment much earlier, at Mt. Sinai, when, this midrash imagines, “they saw Moshe and Aharon walking first and they behind them and the Israelites behind them, Nadav said to Avihu, ‘Soon these two old guys are going to die, and we will lead the community!’” (Sifra, Shemini, Miluim 2:21).

One might see in all these views a common center of gravity: Nadav and Avihu were punished with death for freelancing, for acting out of individual devotion of passion, rather than obedience. The great 20th Century Bible educator and scholar Nechama Leibowitz takes this view (Studies in Vayikra , 1983, Shemini #2, “The Tragedy of Nadab and Abihu”):

“Their guilt…lay in man’s desire to break through, as it were, to the Almighty and cleave to his Creator not in accordance with the prescribed ordinances, but rather in conformity with the dictates of his own heart. The acceptance of the yoke of heaven which is the aim of the whole Torah is here replaced by a religious ecstasy which is free from the trammels of normative religious discipline, unrestrained, and unsubservient to the divine will. For this reason they were punished.”

For Leibowitz and many others, the lesson of the death of Nadav and Avihu is that there is no place for ecstatic, creative, or spontaneous spiritual life, that authentic Jewish devotion is exclusively through obedience. I think that this reading is as wrongheaded as it is to interpret a parent’s warning to a child, “Don’t play with fire”, to mean “Don’t play”. If spontaneous religious innovation is always wrong, what about Miriam and Moshe’s Song of the Sea (Exodus 15)? What about Pinhas’s vigilante justice when the judicial system was frozen and thousands were dying (Numbers 25)? What about Elijah the Prophet taunting wicked King Ahab and the Priests of Ba‘al on Mt. Carmel (I Kings 18)? None of those Biblical heroes had been commanded to do what they did, yet their actions are praised. The notion that the problem is innovation or spontaneity itself is undermined by the continuation of our very story, when Aharon himself innovates an halakhic ruling, without relying on explicit precedent, in the immediate aftermath of Nadav and Avihu’s death, and the Torah highlights Moshe’s validation of his innovation to close this saga (Vayikra/Leviticus 10:19-20). I wrote about this exchange and its implications for halakha and rabbinic responsibility here

I’ve also seen rabbis, mostly contemporary liberal rabbis, relate to Nadav and Avihu as models of the Jewish innovative spirit. In doing so, they loosely follow Hasidic teachings that highlight the devotional passion of Nadav and Avihu as religiously intense and positive, and to be emulated, but fail to grasp the implication of even those radical, positive readings, that the kind of radical passion they are describing is deadly in its intensity. Both of these approaches dig into an orthodox posture in an either/or tug-of-war between obedience and innovation and fail to grasp how context-specific our story is. 

The inauguration of the Mishkan is scripted out with an extreme emphasis on detailed protocol: “as I commanded” (8:31), “As was done on this day, YHWH has commanded to do to atone for you” (8:34), “for so I have been commanded” (8:35); “And Aharon and his sons did all the things that YHWH had commanded through Moshe” (8:36); ““This is the thing that YHWH has commanded you do” (9:6); “ as YHWH has commanded” (9:7); “as YHWH had commanded Moshe” (9:10); “and he did it according to regulation” (9:16); “as Moshe had commanded” (9:21). The Torah is explicit about why following protocol is so important here, in this context. “And at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting you shall sit day and night for seven days, and you shall keep YHWH’s watch, that you may not die” (8:35). This situation is very dangerous. Direct contact with God can kill you, as the Torah has taught before. At Mt. Sinai, Moshe was warned, “Cordon off the people around, saying, ‘Keep watch of yourselves from going up the mountain or touching the border of it; anyone who touches the mountain will surely die’” (Sh’mot/Exodus 19:12). After the Golden Calf debacle, when Moshe coaxes God to return to relationship with the people and requests to see God’s face, God warns him, “You can’t see My face, for no person can see Me and live” (Sh’mot/Exodus 33:20). 

Community organizers understand very well how important it is to hew to authority and follow instructions in a dangerous, well-planned action. Let’s say you’re planning a mass action against ICE detention or police brutality or a major corporate office building, and you’re bringing a large group of people into a standoff with the police. You don’t throw this together and what happens, happens; you plan this out meticulously ahead of time. You assign roles, you rehearse, you lay out contingency plans for different outcomes. The LAST thing that can be tolerated is for a couple of hotheads inspired by the moment to freelance and spontaneously engage in some unplanned, dramatic action. That can get somebody killed and undermine the entire action, even the movement! In moments like these, when you’ve been given detailed protocol by people you trust enough to be following to come out in the first place, that strict  adherence to protocol is essential. Nadav and Avihu were hotheads and they knew better. They were there for the seven day rehearsal vigil. Maybe in another context, their “alien fire” would have been a welcome innovation, but here? Now? They played with fire in the most reckless way. Also, it’s impossible to separate their action from their privilege. Maybe many Israelites felt ecstatic inspiration, but they didn’t rush forward but were restrained, disciplined, by their own modest non-entitlement. These two guys — of course they were guys — Aharon’s sons, priestly royalty, don’t stop to think whether it’s appropriate for them to take up all that space. They didn’t take counsel with anyone. Their misunderstanding of their privilege led them to exercise judgment about as well as a drunk person.

But seasoned organizers also know not to interpret this lesson too broadly. People like Nadav and Avihu, who need to be held strongly in check when protocol is present and essential, may be exactly the people who will courageously and creatively initiate some bold action in another, surprise circumstance that didn’t benefit from planning. Miriam and Moshe started singing when there was no script for how to respond to the vanquishing of their oppressors. Pinhas went in specifically when he saw that Moshe was disobeying God’s instructions and the leadership class was disobeying his instructions, and the entire leadership class was hamstrung in a crisis. No protocol. Elijah the fugitive came out of hiding to confront the corrupt hegemony when God had been exiled from the land. No protocol. The 18th Century Hasidic Rebbe Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl teaches that “Pinhas is Elijah. He inherited the souls of Nadav and Avihu” (Me’or ‘Eynayim I, 278-279, quoted in Ariel Evan Mayse’s 2019 article, “Like a Moth to a Flame: The Death of Nadav and Avihu in Hasidic Literature”).

There’s a time and a place, but we have to be able to exercise judgment, to recognize context, to make distinctions. Recall God’s words to Aharon just after his sons’ death, explaining the commandment to avoid wine: “and to distinguish between the sacred and the profane” — lehavdil bein kodesh uvein hol (Lev. 10:10). This story is our source for Havdalah, our weekly, sacred act of discernment, of “distinguishing”, of recognizing the energy needs of the moment, when is the time for obedience and when is the time for spontaneity. 

Shabbat shalom. 


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