The very name of this portion, Shemini (the eighth day), suggests that we think at a level beyond the normal cycle of “seven” that is found throughout Jewish life and rituals: the seven day week, the seven major festivals, the seven species of the Land of Israel, etc. Eight connotes a new beginning, a new perspective, a new perception. This concept has a profound influence on our ability to understand one of the most enigmatic events in the Torah – the deaths of Nadav and Avihu which are recorded in Vayikra/Leviticus 10: 1-3.
These two sons of Aaron brought what the Torah describes as “strange fire” which Hashem had not commanded. Hashem’s subsequent remark that He would be sanctified “by those nearest to Me” and thus honored among the people, raises many questions. The Sages have offered numerous and varied explanations for Nadav and Avihu’s behavior, could it be that their “offering” can understood in the context of their father’s recent actions?
Aaron had lacked the self-confidence to stand up to the people at the time of the Golden Calf and Nadav and Avihu witnessed the deaths of 3000 because of it. On the day of the Dedication of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), their father was clearly full of regret for his participation in making the Calf and questioned within himself whether he was even worthy to perform the duties of High Priest.
As the Divine Presence had not yet descended on the Mishkan, Aaron was all the more insecure in his position, thinking it was most likely his fault that Hashem was not manifesting His presence. Seeing his brother’s distress, Moshe prayed with him and “a fire went forth from before Hashem and consumed upon the altar the elevation offering and their fats, and the people saw and sang songs and fell upon their faces.”
Seeing this, the passionate young men, who were looked upon as tzaddikim by their peers because of their intense love of Hashem and desire to serve Him, responded to Hashem’s fire by impulsively putting fire in their own pans, sprinkling incense on it and presenting it as an offering to Hashem, perhaps wanting to demonstrate that they wanted to “repair” their father’s insecurity and lack of self-confidence by their eager and passionate offering.
What they failed to realize in their impulsiveness was something that the prophet Shmuel (Samuel) would explain many years later to Saul: that obedience is better than sacrifice and to hearken to Hashem’s voice is better than the fat of rams. Good intentions are not enough. Our primary responsibility is to know what Hashem wants and to obey His commandments — with righteous passion, yes, but not with misguided passion.
There is a second issue here. If,in fact Aaron’s sons were moved to do something that would “repair” their father’s sin, they failed to understand that each man is responsible for his own actions. As Aaron’s sons, the only appropriate course of action for them was to learn from their father’s failure what NOT to do, as Rabbi Avraham Trugman often says, “the actions of the fathers are a sign to their children.”
Although the passion for Hashem which characterized Nadav and Avihu ultimately led to their deaths, that passion also has a very positive side and is the very quality that saved Israel in another crisis towards the end of the Torah. When many Israelite men had been seduced by Moabite women, Zimri, the prince of the tribe of Shimon, took a Moabite princess to have relations with her in his tent, publicly challenging Moshe’s authority. The situation was so out of hand that even Moshe and his advisors were at a loss as to what to do.
Pinchas, after respectfully reminding Moshe of the appropriate legal discipline required in such cases, received Moshe’s blessing to take action. Pinchas killed Zimri and the woman, thereby stopping the plague that had begun to invade the Israelite camp, thus averting the destruction of the people of Israel.
What are we to learn? Passion in our service of Hashem is a good thing – a very good thing – AS LONG AS our passion is expressed within the boundaries of Hashem’s will as expressed in His Torah.
And secondly, as much as our com-passion towards others may lead us to want to “repair” their failures, we must remember that each person (Parents, this includes your own children) has to walk his own journey with Hashem, learning, growing, even through mistakes and failures, and we have to give each other the room to do so.
In Tune with Torah this week = rekindling our passion for Hashem and for His Torah and reviving our trust in Hashem’s work in the lives of those we love.