Someone had spotted three stars in the sky, so we could begin. Someone switched off the lights while someone else struck a match and kindled the beautifully twisting, interwoven candle. We all turned away from the window, forming a circle around the light, which sent shadows dancing across the walls of the small living room. Amid the sense of anticipation, someone started singing quietly, the mournful niggun that heralded the beginning of the end of the day. Someone raised the cup of wine above our heads, as we sang who creates the fruit of the vine and each took a sip. The wine was oversweet, the purity of the day becoming enveloped in an obscuring cloak of distance and absurdity. Someone passed around the box of spices and I inhaled their musky aromas as we sang who creates all kinds of spices. Momentarily I was transported from the intense calm of the living room to the business and distraction of the market, men and women clamouring for my custom. Someone raised the undulating flame and I was brought back into the room. As though it was the first fire – as though Eve herself had struck the match, and we were witnessing its power and its glittering light for the first time – we sent out our hands towards its tempting warmth. As though witnessing some miracle, we praised the one who creates the lights of fire. The primeval fire, not the discreet candles of civilisation we had kindled twenty-five hours earlier…
There stood Nadav and Abihu, in the presence of the congregation. This was their moment – they were of the royal family of Israel, and yet had spent their entire upbringing as slaves of the common Egyptian. They were sons of Aaron, who had now been given the service of sacrifice as an eternal inheritance for all their generations. No longer would they have to watch in bitterness as the Egyptians made offerings to Atum with his dual crowns, Bastet with her cat head, or Aten, the sun with rays that ended in hands. They now had the grace and favour of a god; a god who was so powerful that they had been delivered from slavery, had built their own sacred altars, and they were ready to perform their own sacrifices. No longer would they have to wait to gain access to the grace, warmth, and love of God.
They had prepared themselves for this moment with several cups of wine. Now, with the solemnity he had seen on the face of the priest of Egypt, Nadav held out the flaming pan as his brother reverently sprinkled incense onto the flames. White smoke billowed about them, obscuring the brothers’ faces from each others’ sight. This had not been commanded, but how could it be wrong?
And there came forth fire from before the ETERNAL, and devoured them, and they died before the ETERNAL. (Lev. 10.2)
The divine fire was so powerful that it consumed both their souls and the white smoke. The fire cut through everything, and then it was gone.
Aaron was silent. He understood then what his sons had failed to grasp – that this god did not want the wanton offerings of the gods of Egypt. In that moment, in the flash of the flames, Aaron saw a future in which access to the divine was not through fire, and spices, and wine, but through action and love. A day would come when Israel did not need anything except God. In the meantime, Israel had to be allowed to make sacrifices – because that was all they knew – but only in the presence of the true God, bounded by the numerous specifications that were to be unchanging and eternal. It would not be easy for Israel to give up its sacrifices, and that her altars would have to be smashed more than once. When sacrifice was taken away, it would be mourned for centuries.
His sons were carried, still dressed in their tunics, out of the camp, and Aaron was returned to the present moment.
Rabbi Pinchas in the name of Rabbi Levi stated: ‘This is comparable to a king’s son who strayed and was accustomed to eat non-kosher meat. The king declared, “let him always eat at my table and on his own he will eventually become disciplined.”’ (Leviticus Rabbah 22.8)
But we have not yet been able to give it up, not completely.
A sizzle, and the flame disappeared into smoke as someone mixed it with the remainder of the wine, and we praised the one who distinguishes between sacred and profane. As the final seconds of the day passed, I could not help but think that, in a final flash of the flames, I saw the many hands of Aten stretching out to touch our fingertips. Our permitted act of idolatry brought the day of Shabbat to an end.
Student rabbi Elliott Karstadt
Acknowledgement: The link between Leviticus chapter 10 and the Havdalah ceremony were first brought to my attention in a source sheet of liturgy and its Biblical inter-text devised by Rabbi Benji Stanley, to whom I am, as always, very grateful.