The swift death of Nadab and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, for bringing a “strange fire” at the dedication of the Tabernacle is one of the incidents of the Bible that invariably raises the hackles of those who wish to cast God in our image. The punishment seems both unduly harsh and unduly arbitrary. Understood in proper context, however, the urgency of the action becomes clear. Indeed, beginning with Nadab and Avihu, we may retrace first principles back to the ultimate principles of Creation, returning back to an explanation of the events immediately following Nadab’s and Avihu’s deaths. Briefly, the immediate, miraculous, and public deaths of Nadab and Avihu for what appears a minor deviance from the formal instruction of ceremony was necessary to prevent the ultimate subversion of the Divine mission for Israel, which hinges on Israel’s achieving a proper relationship with God via the Law.
In exploring this idea, allow me to acknowledge and dismiss what are usually regarded as central controversies in this discussion – the nature of Nadab and Avihu’s acts and the nature of Karbanot. While informative in their own right, they are irrelevant to the question of God’s punishment and the relationship between Israel and God through the law of sacrifice. It is difficult to imagine that Nadab and Avihu’s fate depended on whether Nadab and Avihu were drunk, rude to their elders, or some other failing. The text gives us all the information God deems sufficient for a basic understanding of the matter. As it is said: “Ain ha mikrah yotzei min p’shuto.” (The text does not depart from its meaning.) Thus, whatever the ultimate nature of Nadab and Avihu’s actions, it is enough for us to understand the events if we know they brought “a strange fire, which [the Lord] had not commanded them.”
Similarly, for purposes of my discussion of the nature of sacrifices, it matters little whether God gave sacrifices as a concession to human weakness (the view expressed by Maimonidies) or whether God finds them intrinsically pleasing (the view of Nachmonidies). God did give them, and structured them in a particular way, cognizant of the nature of the Jewish people. As such, even if they are a concession to human weakness, they are a part of the Law and intended to work a desired effect in accordance with the overall intended effect of the Law.
Let us begin, then with the text, Lev 10:1-20. As described in the preceding chapter, the magnificent ceremony dedicating the Tabernacle and consecrating Aaron and his sons as priests was drawing to a dramatic conclusion. As the final miraculous act, Aaron set forth a sacrifice “as commanded by Moses” (9:21). Aaron performs the ritual blessing of the people, and Aaron and Moses together adjourn to the “Tent of Meeting,” from which they exit together and bless the people again (but this time jointly). Through this act “the glory of the Lord is revealed.” (9:22). A miraculous fire issues forth devouring the sacrifice and “ALL the people saw, and they shouted in awe, and fell upon their faces.” (9:24).
It is at this point that Nadab and Avihu, consecrated priests and sons of Aaron, “each took his pan, filled it with incense, and brought a strange fire the Lord had not commanded.” Instantly, the miraculous fire again issues forth, which “devours them, and they died before the Lord.” (10:2). Moses then tells Aaron that God has said “I will be sanctified in them that come near me, and before all the people shall I get me honor,” and Aaron is silent. Moses then orders the next closest relatives, sons of Aaron’s uncle, to remove the bodies of Nadab and Avihu. Moses further enjoins Aaron and his remaining sons from engaging in any display of mourning, although “the whole House of Israel will bewail the burning that the Lord has kindled.” (10:6)
God then speaks directly to Aaron. After first giving the injunction that neither he nor his descendants should drink intoxicating liquor of any sort before undertaking the Temple service, God commits to Aaron and his descendants in perpetuity “to distinguish between the Holy and the Profane, between the impure and the pure, and to teach the Children of Israel all the laws given to them by the hand of Moses.” (10:10-11)
Moses then returns to Aaron and his children to instruct them on the removal and eating of the sin offering. To Moses’ irritation, Aaron and his children do not eat the sin offering in the Holy of Holies, as explicitly instructed by Moses. When Moses rebukes them, Aaron responds: “This day we have brought their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, and then these events occurred to me; would it please the Lord for me to have eaten the sin offering this day?” (10:19) “And Moses heard and it was good in his eyes.” (10:20)
How are we to explain the apparent contradiction between the death of Nadab and Avihu for a breach of God’s instruction, while Aaron’s deviation from Moses’ explicit direction is not merely forgiven, but “good in [Moses’] eyes.” If God demand instant obedience or death, then how can the unilateral change by Aaron and his children be “good.” But if God does not impose such strict penalties for a violation of his will, why are Nadab and Avihu put to death? And why does God visit Aaron with an apparent irrelevancy? If – as suggested by some of the commentaries – God is communicating with Aaron as a reward for Aaron’s keeping silent and accepting the righteousness of God’s actions in the face of personal tragedy, then why does not God communicate a direct message of reward, or at least comfort?
In answering this question, I begin with an essential principle that God’s desire for a relationship with human beings in general and with Israel in particular is unique and structured through the “Torah,” the Law. While the word “torah” is often interpreted as the five books of Moses, its more common and fundamental meaning in Biblical Hebrew is as law. Thus, “this is the torah of the leper” (Lev 14:23), “this is the torah, a man when he dies in a tent, all who come in the tent and all things in the tent are impure seven days.” (Num 19:14). And there are numerous other examples.
Nowhere is the careful structure of law and the critical interplay of law and emotion more critical than in the law of sacrifice. Whether we accept the opinion of Maimonides or Nachmonides, any study of the law of sacrifices reveals a complex structure designed to evoke simultaneously national unity, individual piety, and divine majesty. Sacrifices play a pivotal role in the subordination of the individual to God and acknowledgement of God’s suzerainty (e.g., the giving of the first fruits or the first born of one’s flock, the ceremony of the Prayer for Rain), of binding the nation and creating a key sense of national unity and purpose (the Paschal Lamb, the Yom Kippur sacrifice that atones for the entire nation, the annual levy of a half-shekel from all the people to pay for the communal sacrifices), and providing a necessary conduit for individual gratitude or penance.
Critical in maintaining the purity and relationship of the sacrifices and ensuring their intended effect is absolute adherence to the law of sacrifice as given by God “though the hand of Moses.” Any deviation is essentially fatal to the enterprise. It not only disrupts the careful balance calculated by God as to the nature of the sacrificial ritual and the emotions and meanings it conveys to the celebrants. It literally corrupts the enterprise by altering the fundamental structure of the relationship because it places co-equal power in Man as in God to structure the relationship between God and Man.
Had God not acted instantly and unmistakably to assert control over the enterprise of sacrifice, it would have become utterly corrupted. The actions of Nadab and Avihu took place before ALL of the people assembled. The people were elevated in a state of emotional rapture, having witnessed the “glory of the Lord” manifest itself in accordance with the meticulous instruction given to the chief secular and chief religious authority. Nadab and Avihu’s spontaneous act of unauthorized worship was thus an assault on every aspect of order and Law established by God. It usurped the primacy of the central authority, elevated spontaneous human defined worship in direct contravention of the worship authorized by God, and co-opted the essential symbol of Divine Glory (the heavenly fire) into human hands (via the “strange fire”). All of this taking place while the people are in their most vulnerable and impressionable state of religious ecstasy.
God’s swift and miraculous rebuke ensures that there can be no doubt among the people as to God’s reaction to this attempted usurpation – however well intended it may have been. The Divine fire is instant, unmistakable, and miraculous in its effect. While tragic – as evidenced by the fact that the entire nation mourn the burning the Lord has kindled – the fate of Nadab and Avihu leaves no doubt as to the nature and structure of the relationship between man and God and the ordering of Society. For all the passion that the sacrificial ritual inspires, indeed, is explicitly designed to inspire, human beings must not forget that God remains the Master of the Universe and that central in our approach to Him is the Law he has given us for that purpose.
This understanding explains both God’s peculiar first statement through Moses and the subsequent command that Aaron and his sons be seen by all to accept God’s judgment without demure. “I shall be sanctified by those who come near me, and before all the people shall I get me honor.” Nadab and Avihu have not died in vain, even if their excess of passion has prompted a public Divine rebuke. Rather, as the Midrash tells us was the case with Tslaphchad (whom the Midrash identifies with the M’koshesh Aitzim, the one who gathers wood and on Sabbath and is condemned to stoning), the death by Divine Decree in a manner that upholds the law and sanctifies the name is not without virtue. At the least, it is better than a senseless and meaningless death.
THE CENTRALITY OF THE LAW
Before continuing, it is appropriate to justify my belief in the centrality of the Law as the foundation of Man’s relationship with God. We begin, appropriately enough, In the Beginning. Contrary to the Christian belief that God created the universe ex nihlo (from nothing), the text implies otherwise.
“And the land was formless and confused, and the Spirit of the Lord moved upon the waters”.
Nachmonides, relying on Aristotle, refers to this substance as “yuli.” It is a primordial matter I which the essential substance of the universe exists, waiting to be drawn out. But in the absence of a physical universe operating under physical laws, it remains a formless proto-matter.
God’s first Act is thus less one of creation than of separation and the imposition of order. God says “Let there be light.” Suddenly, instead of a disorderly and chaotic confusion, there are boundaries and structure. God emphasizes this further by giving them clear titles, “day” and “night,” and establishes them in linear time. Thus, the fundamental act of creation is the imposition of law on the universe.
This separation as creation continue on Day 2. God “separates the land from the water, and the waters of the upper heaven from the waters of the lower heaven.” Only now, with a physical world created girded by boundaries and physical laws, can genuine creation commence. Notably, it is life itself that God creates ex nihlo rather than creating by separating from surrounding substance. But even here, God imposes law by requiring the life in question (described as “grasses and trees” but symbolizing non-animal life) to give seed each according to its kind. Again, the relationship between God and the material world is achieved by God defining and ordering the world into a structure consonant with the Divine Plan. This pattern continues through the creation of the Sun, moon and stars (the means by which humans will gauge linear time and which will provide order to their seasons and lives) on Day 4, the creation of the creatures of the sea (each giving birth after its kind) on Day 5, and the creation of the animal kingdom on Day 6.
Man, made in God’s image, immediately replicates God’s actions. When the animals come before Adam, Adam names them as God named the Day and Night. But because Adam is not God, his power is limited. Having completed the limited purpose allowed him in God’s image to the best of his capacity, Man has no means of further interacting with God or the world. Bereft of purpose, Man simply is.
God remedies this in two ways. First, God divides Man into two creatures, designed to live together and complete each other. Second, God gives man purpose in the form of positive and negative commandments. This explains why God finds it necessary to create “the fruit of the tree of knowledge if good and evil,” and command man not to eat of it. Had it been possible for man to have a relationship with God in the absence of Law, or even a Law that contained only positive commandments, the entire business with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge would be unnecessary. But it is only in the gift and understanding of a negative command, a command of restraint, that man is distinguished from any other creature. The animals, as we have seen, are also given commands. These commands require no restraint, however, but simply govern their nature. It is to human beings and human beings alone that God has given the gift of boundaries that are consciously self-limiting. In this, Man, and Man alone, is truly in the image of God. But man cannot achieve this purpose without God.
This also explains how it is possible to expect Adam and Eve to obey God’s precept if they lacked knowledge of the difference between good and evil until after they violated the Divine Command. The initial purpose of this law was not “good” or “evil” as we generally mean the term. Rather, the sole purpose of the command was to provide Law, boundaries and self-restraint in imitation of God’s relationship with the natural world.
It is from this that we may understand why all human beings, whether Jewish or not Jewish, are given Law. ALL human beings are made in the image of God, but this essential humanity is meaningless without Law. This also explains why the seven Noachide laws contain one communal law in addition to six directed at individual conduct – a law to create just courts. Whatever laws humans may select, it is imperative that they have laws, for it is in this way that human society differentiates itself from the state of nature.
Similarly, we may now understand that the mark of distinction of Israel as the Chosen People is as the recipients of the Torah, the Law. If God relates to the universe through the structure of natural law, and distinguishes humanity from the state of nature by our ability to follow both affirmative commands and commands of restraint, it should not surprise us that God distinguishes His People and establishes His relationship via the covenant of law.
Critically, it is God’s law and not human law. God’s structure of the universe is not arbitrary. It is not Law for the sake of Law, boundary for the sake of boundary, or restraint for the sake of restraint. Thus, those who would challenge this assertion with Korach-like logic, declaring that the application of any law or restriction must bring one closer to God, reduce themselves to absurdity rather than the argument. It is against this foolishness that the Torah declares: “Behold, I have given you the Law, you shall not add to it nor shall you detract from it.” Similarly, Kohelet warns: “Be not over righteous, wherefore should you destroy yourself.”
By the same token, let me preempt and rebuke those who would challenge me by declaring that a primacy of Law is a negation of passion. For the law is carefully structured to evoke emotional states as desired by God to the occasion. Indeed, as it is written, and “you shall be joyful on your holiday.” So too do the sages tell us “He who has not seen the Simchat Beit Hashoavah has not seen joy.” Rather, it is through the careful application of Law, by surrendering wholly to the experience created by adherence to the Law, is the passion of our relationship with God aroused, expressed and appropriately channeled.
It is this alloy of discipline and passion made possible by Law that is the “golden path” described by Maimonides. As Maimonides explains, the center of the Golden Path is the place were all human attributes are held in proper equipoise. This is not to the negation of any attribute or passion, but neither is any single attribute or passion dominant. It is in this state, in which every single emotion and attribute gifted us by God is balanced and alloyed through discipline and adherence to the Law, that a human being fully realizes his or her potential to experience the relationship with God.
UNDERSTANDING THE REST OF THE NADAB AND AVIHU TEXT
With the principal that God relates to us via the Law firmly established, we may resume our understanding of the story of Nadab and Avihu. God’s direct communication to Aaron is now clear. The command God gives with regard to refraining from intoxicating liquors is archetypal of the command of restraint that symbolizes boundaries and separations. Just as law of restraint separates humans from animals, and the Torah separates Israel from other nations, so must the laws of restraint separate Aaron and his children from Israel. Tellingly, this is the first permanent command given to Aaron on his consecration to the Priesthood. Until this time, the commands given have been affirmative and ritual in nature. God, speaking directly to Aaron, recapitulates the experience with Adam and gives Aaron a command of restraint.
Having distinguished Aaron and his children via their own Law, God now confers on them a unique responsibility and jurisdiction. While Moses is the instrument by which God will communicate the Law, it will fall to Aaron and his children to apply and teach the Law. Again, God creates through separation and designation a functioning and orderly society.
The role of Aaron as interpreter of the law given by Moses is then illustrated by the events of the text. Moses conveys the instruction of God, including the instruction to omit public signs of mourning. It is clear from Moses subsequent conduct and irritation with Aaron and his sons for failure to eat the sin offering in the Holy of Holies that Moses assumed that God had commanded that Aaron and his sons entirely suspend all rituals of mourning. Aaron, however, understood the Divine Command that he should refrain only from the public rituals of mourning. The need for the nation to see the chief religious authority accept God’s judgment without question neither lessened the tragedy nor relieved Aaron and his sons of the obligation to mourn where it would not harm the people. When Aaron gently and diplomatically conveys this interpretation to Moses, Moses recognizes that Aaron has acted in his appropriate role as the interpreter of the Law rather than repeating the error of setting aside the law to satisfy his own emotional needs. Accordingly, “it was good in the eyes of Moses” only after he received Aaron’s explanation.