I rarely give my sermons titles and have never done so with a Shabbat Message. This week however, I feel compelled to do just that. The title of this week’s Shabbat Message is:
“I Was Wrong About Nadav and Abihu.”
This week’s Torah portion contains a story that has always troubled me. In it, Nadav and Abihu, two of Aaron’s sons, are punished for a seemingly innocent act of piety. For my entire rabbinate I have struggled with the story because their punishment takes place in a manner that looks capricious and overly harsh.
The Torah explains the events leading up to their punishment:
“Aaron’s sons Nadav and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to God’s command. So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Moses then said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord spoke of when he said:
“Among those who approach me I will be proved holy;
in the sight of all the people I will be honored.’”
Aaron remained silent.”
What, I wondered, was so grave about Nadav and Abihu bringing unauthorized, or more accurately ‘strange’ fire to the altar? So they were a bit overzealous? Did that really require an immediate sentence of death?”
And why, I wondered, was Aaron silent when Moses offered a rationale for God’s actions that did not even acknowledge the pain Aaron must have been feeling at the loss of not one but two of his sons?
The rabbis of old seemingly struggled with these questions as well. Many suggest that it was not the “strange fire” that prompted their punishment but other infractions and missteps they committed in the process. Some of these suggested “infractions” include their having been drinking before entering God’s presence or their overabundance of zeal leading them to act on their own rather than first consulting with Aaron and Moses.
One source, the Ohr Hachaim, even suggests that they were not actually punished but that their desire to be in God’s presence had become so great that their bodies could no longer contain their souls and they died as a result.
But what, I wonder this year, if there was something else going on? What if this was, in fact, a lesson in power and accountability? Allow me to explain my thinking.
Nadav and Abihu were the sons of Aaron the High Priest. Their father was the second most powerful and influential person in the fledgling social structure that Moses, with God’s instructions, had put into place. As part of establishing communal norms the rules had been set forth for how and when offerings were to be made to God. There was, as it were, a time and a place for everything and both the time and place had been explicitly delineated.
By telling us that Nadav and Abihu brought “strange” and “unauthorized” fire to God, the Torah is making it clear that they disregarded those standards and norms. They thought the “rules” did not apply to them and they could do whatever they wanted to do whenever they wanted to do it.
And why would they think that? Because they were the sons of the second most powerful man in the community. They literally thought they were above the law. And that could not be allowed to go unchecked.
Seen in this light, the text is not about the strange fire. It is about accountability and the concern that those who hold power might believe themselves to be free from all social norms and responsibilities. Nadav and Abihu thought they could do something wrong and get away with it because of their position in the social order. The harsh punishment, while a bit over the top in my opinion, was the only way to make clear that they were wrong. It was intended to drive home the point that position and power do not make one exempt from the requirements of society. If anything, such individuals need to be held to a higher standard because, if they are not, the community might see the entire social structure as corrupt. It takes leaders who understand their role as servants of the community and protectors of social and legal norms and place their political fortunes as less important than their role as keepers of the social flame.
And as for Aaron’s silence… perhaps he understood that while he was aggrieved to have lost his sons, their actions had put the entire community at risk.
We are familiar with the phrase “no one is above the law” Perhaps this ancient Biblical tale is trying to tell us just that. We simply need to listen.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen