Playing with Fire | Parashat Shmini

“Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it;  and they offered before Adonai unfitting fire, which God had not commanded them. And fire came from Adonai and consumed them; thus they died before Adonai. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what Adonai meant when God said: ‘Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain  glory before all the people.’ And Aaron was silent.” (Leviticus 10:1-3)

I have a love-hate relationship with this climactic passage in Parashat Shmini. The literary critic in me loves the spare wording, the way the story leaves so much to the imagination of the reader. I find Aaron’s silence in the face of literally unspeakable tragedy to be deeply moving. And there is the enduring mystery here: have Nadav and Avihu committed a crime so terrible that the only appropriate penalty is death? Or are there stranger forces at work here –a divine power which does not play by the human rules of fairness? Or, as some more radical commentaries have suggested, do Nadav and Avihu embrace death in order to enter into an experience of God which is so intense, so ecstatic, that it costs them their lives? Each year I find something new. It is one of those episodes in the Torah which immediately comes to mind when I think of the Talmudic passage, “Turn it, turn it, turn it, for everything is within.”

At the same time, I hate this passage. When my younger son was born thirteen years ago, my husband and I settled on the name “Nadav.” It has a lovely sonorous feel. The combination of  consonants is quite pleasing. The word itself means “generous.” Over the years, we joked that our Nadav was indeed generous: generous in mischief, generous in silliness, and so on. Many other parents – especially in the State of Israel – appear to be equally enamoured of the name. My Nadav has met no fewer than four other Nadavs in his life. Based solely on our experience, Nadav would appear to be a fabulously popular boy’s name.

And each year, Parashat Shmini comes along. As the original Nadav – Aaron’s beloved eldest son – is burnt up in a divine fire, I find myself wondering once again why exactly I thought Nadav would be a perfect name.

Jewish tradition itself has a decidedly ambivalent relationship with the tale of Nadav and Avihu. Rabbinic midrash is quick to delineate the crimes that the young men must surely have committed to be dealt such a severe penalty. It is noted that the next teaching to follow this episode is the admonition not to drink wine or other alcohol prior to entering the Tent of Meeting. From this, the rabbis conclude that Nadav and Avihu were clearly drunk and that this was what led them to act inappropriately.

An even earlier commentary, however, is the choice of haftarah for this week’s parashah. The passage from 2 Samuel focuses primarily on how King David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. Early on, we learn that the Ark was transported on a cart drawn by oxen. When the oxen stumble, a man named Uzzah reaches out to keep the Ark from toppling off of the cart. He is immediately struck dead. David is so distressed by this event that he puts off bringing the Ark to Jerusalem for three months. If Nadav and Avihu’s deaths seem inexplicable, Uzzah’s death appears downright outrageous. After all, what would have happened if he had not reached out when he did? Surely he should have been rewarded for his actions!

In his insightful commentary to Parashat Shmini, Richard Elliott Friedman writes, “This is one of several biblical stories that indicate that on the highest levels of the ritual realm, intention does not matter…There are cases in which innocent motives still do not make one innocent.” (Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah, Harper San Francisco, 2001). So Nadav and Avihu’s transgression falls into the same category as Uzzah’s: perhaps none of them have done anything wrong. They have simply unknowingly crossed a line that cannot be crossed.

Did Nadav and Avihu know that they were risking death with their actions? Did Uzzah have any sense that reaching his arm out to steady the Ark would end his life? Can any of us trust from one moment to the next that life will follow a predictable pattern, that everything will always work out exactly right?

Although we all long to believe that we have full control over the events of our lives, we know deep down that this isn’t true. Terrible things happen, and they are just about always far beyond our control.

That, I think is why this week’s portion always makes me question the decision to name my son Nadav. Aaron’s sons sneaked out at night and offered the wrong kind of incense. Even though he was the high priest, he could not decide what happened to his children. They made their own decisions, and it cost them their lives. We all hope and pray that our children will make wise choices, and that we their parents and mentors will guide them well along this perilous journey of life.

About the author: Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky has served Beit Shalom Progressive Synagogue in Adelaide, South Australia since 2006.


The above was formerly published as #211 in our Torah from Around the World series.

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