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“When A Craving For Spirituality Turns Deadly”
By Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Bregman
Many people place an enormous premium on feelings of inspiration and being inspired, to the point where it often becomes one of a person’s highest values and guiding lights. This isn’t always a good thing. For example, I recently met someone who ended what was by all accounts a perfectly-good marriage on the basis that he “just wasn’t feeling it anymore.” From the Torah perspective, this is a grave error. While feelings of inspiration and ultimately turning them into concrete action do occupy a prominent place in Jewish life, being inspired is not the end-all, be-all value.
Let’s take a close look at a passage in the Torah that will poignantly explicate this concept:
In Parshas Shemini (Vayikra 10:1), the Torah tells us that Nadav and Avihu – two of the righteous sons of Aaron – brought an “Eish Zara” (a foreign fire) that Hashem had not commanded, during the inauguration of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). As a result, they died. Specifically, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 52a) says that they died by a fire that emerged from the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctum of the Mishkan. This fire entered their bodies through their noses and burned their souls. Astonishingly, their bodies remained fully intact and unharmed.
Many questions can be asked here, but for now, we’ll limit ourselves to two: What precisely is this Eish Zara (foreign fire) about? And of all the ways Hashem could have caused them to die, why did their demise come about in such an unusual fashion?
In response to these questions, this author would like to advance a Chiddush (novel explanation) that will shed much light on these matters. However, as a preliminary matter, one must first become acquainted with the various explanations found throughout the Talmud and Midrash that seek to define the precise nature of Nadav and Avihu’s sin. Consider the following teachings advanced by our Sages:
(1) Nadav and Avihu died because they brought an offering of Ketores (Incense) that wasn’t commanded, as described in the Torah (Vayikra 10:1).
(2) Sanhedrin (52a) relates that it once happened that Moshe and Aaron were walking along on the way, and Nadav and Avihu were walking behind them. Nadav said to Avihu, “When will these two old men die and you and I will lead the generation?”
(3) The Sifra explains that Nadav and Avihu entered the Holy of Holies, the most intensely sacred area of the Mishkan. This was an area that only their father, Aaron the High Priest, would be able to enter for a short period of time on Yom Kippur. It’s also noteworthy to mention that their father hadn’t yet been permitted to enter, even once. Nonetheless, they entered anyway.
(4) Vayikra Rabba (12:1) relates that Nadav and Avihu’s sin was that they entered the Sanctuary having drunk wine.
(5) Eruvin (63a) and Yoma (53a) teach that Nadav and Avihu ruled on matters of Halacha (Jewish law) in front of their teacher (Moshe), and for this they were killed.
(6) Yevamos (64a) explains that if Nadav and Avihu had fathered children, they would not have died. Relatedly, Vayikra Rabba (20:9-10) says these brothers never married, as they didn't feel anyone would be good enough for them.
(7) The Midrash in Vayikra Rabba (20:10) conveys that Nadav and Avihu looked at the Shechinah (Hashem’s Divine Presence) during the Revelation at Mount Sinai in a way that was inappropriate and overly familiar. This episode is alluded to in the written text of the Chumash. Shemos (24:11) says, “And to the nobles of the Children of Israel, He [Hashem] did not send forth His hand – they viewed G-d, yet they ate and drank.” Midrash Tanchuma (B’haaloscha 16) explains that the term “nobles of the Children of Israel” refers to Nadav and Avihu, who ate and drank as they gazed at Hashem’s Divine Presence.
These seven explanations appear to be all over the road! Each of these teachings pertains to the sin of Nadav and Avihu, but seem to have precious little to do with one another. What are the ancient Sages teaching us with all of these different explanations?
I believe that the common thread running through all of these explanations is the notion of misdirected inspiration. Sometimes a person will experience a moment where he has inspiration or enthusiasm for holiness. However, if it is misdirected, or goes against Hashem’s explicit instruction, then it is not a good thing. If we study closely each of the explanations for their transgression, this theme becomes apparent:
(1) Nadav and Avihu died because they brought an offering of Ketores (Incense) that wasn’t commanded. Why did they think of doing so in the first place? Well, it was understood at the time that several of the leaders of the Jewish people were going to soon face their demise. Nadav and Avihu wished to forestall this possibility and defend the righteous! To that end, they burned Ketores, because the Talmud (Shabbos 89a) relates that Moshe had been taught by the Malach HaMaves (Angel of Death) that the Ketores of the Mishkan has the power to keep death in check. In other words, Nadav and Avihu were inspired to do good! But it wasn’t commanded or instructed, and as such they met their demise.
(2) Why would Nadav and Avihu wish that Moshe and Aaron would die so they could lead the Jewish people? It certainly goes without saying that since the former were a pair of righteous brothers, they obviously didn’t wish their uncle and father, respectively, harm. Rather, they simply became excited at the prospect of bringing their talents to bear upon the Jewish people. They knew they had a great deal to contribute to Klal Yisroel, and they coveted the opportunity to lead Hashem’s flock. They certainly meant well … they were inspired to lead … but it led them to speak in a way which was far from respectful.
(3) The reason Nadav and Avihu entered the Holy of Holies, despite it only being the province of Aaron, was because they were enamored by the idea of drawing closer to Hashem. Sadly, this desire caused them to overlook protocol and led to a severe punishment.
(4) Why would Nadav and Avihu enter the Sanctuary having drunk wine? There exists a long-standing idea in society that a person needs to bring a foreign substance into his body to achieve a higher state of consciousness or connectedness. For example, the Torah relates that Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden so they could achieve a higher level of closeness to Hashem. In more recent times, countless musicians have ingested drugs in the hope it will enable them to write better music or song lyrics. In their own fashion, Nadav and Avihu ascribed to this belief. They entered the Sanctuary while drunk in an attempt to enhance their worship of Hashem. In this instance, they most certainly meant well, but their fire for spirituality and inspiration was misdirected.
(5) Why would Nadav and Avihu rule on matters of Halacha (Jewish Law) in front of their teacher? The reason a person commits this offense is simply because he is enthusiastic and excited about the fact that he knows the answer…so he simply can’t contain himself and blurts it out. Yes, it’s a fiery enthusiasm, but it is misdirected and inappropriate.
(6) Nadav and Avihu neither married nor fathered children because they believed that a wife or children would interfere with many aspects of their serving Hashem. They were not wrong per se, because tending to a relationship with one’s spouse and focusing on raising children does detract from the time one otherwise can devote to Torah study, prayer, and good deeds on behalf of the community. These facts notwithstanding, Hashem commands a Jew to involve himself in these areas, and that is what we are to do. At any rate, Nadav and Avihu wished to forego these involvements, because they were spiritually inspired to serve Hashem with exclusive devotion. While it was an admirable intention, they were punished for this misguided behavior.
(7) Lastly, Nadav and Avihu’s excessive familiarity and casualness with the Divine Presence at Sinai did not stem from a place of malevolence. Rather, they were enthralled by the spirituality of the moment and simply wanted to draw close.
With these explanations in hand, we can now understand why the Torah says they were killed for their Eish Zara, their foreign fire. This expression refers to the fire of their enthusiasm. In each of the sources articulated above, their souls wished to connect and ‘meant well.’ Though Nadav and Avihu felt the fire of enthusiasm, it was a foreign fire nonetheless. And this explanation also helps us understand why they died by having their souls burned. It was only their well-meaning souls (with its misdirected enthusiasm) that had to be punished because that alone was the source of their errors.
The ultimate lesson to be learned from the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu is that inspiration is only a starting point, and can often be overrated. Even when we’re enthusiastic about acting on behalf of Hashem or the Jewish people, we must first allow our desires to pass through the filter of Halacha (Jewish Law) and the authentic Torah tradition. If our inspiration still passes muster, then, by all means, we may proceed. But inspiration and enthusiasm, when left unchecked, can be dangerous. We must always be careful to channel these emotions correctly. At their worst, the fire of enthusiasm and an unkosher craving for spirituality can turn deadly.
Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Bregman is Founder of the Jewish Executive Learning Network (JELN.org), a Lakewood-based organization that shares the beauty of Torah study with young professional men in their 20’s and 30’s in the New York City area. His classes are available in video and MP3 formats through JELN.org and TorahAnytime.com. In addition to his communal work, Rabbi Bregman manages his own law firm, specializing in Business Law and Trusts & Estates. He may be contacted at Director@JELN.org.