Nadav – ‘willing’ – and Abihu – ‘(God) is my father’ – both sons of Aaron, are consumed by a fire emanating from the Lord at the very moment they offer their personally chosen fire incense to the Lord (Lev. 10:1-2).
This act seems to trigger a reflexive, reactive response which is immediate. They die of a fire which strikingly recalls the fire that emanates from the Lord consuming the olah, the burnt offering commanded by God – we read this in the immediately preceding narrative – and before which the people shouted and prostrated themselves when they saw it (Lev. 9:24)
But the two sons’ offerings, unlike the ordained olah, had not been commanded. Their fire is zarah or alien: it does not belong here. And the Lord, whose fire this is, seems curiously distant, perhaps alien too, hidden behind the manifestation of fire.
The Lord does not speak, does not betray anger, remains silent. The Lord’s revelation is in the fire, which answers with terrible destructiveness the fire the two sons offered. But it is a wordless blow. It happens in a kind of hermeneutic silence.
Into this silence Moses speaks to Aaron, but he receives no reply: Va-yidom Aharon, “And Aaron was silent” (Lev. 10:3). Aaron does not, perhaps cannot articulate any meaning. He has witnessed a terrible cause and effect, a fearsome manifestation of the Divine, and just as that was without speech, so is he.
Moses’ interpretation is the first in the long tradition of interpretations which stretches all the way from then to now. And how we need to interpret this violent, inarticulate rebuke! We feel the need to grasp what was so wrong about the action of Nadav and Abihu.
For Moses it is this: “This is what the Lord meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people” (Lev. 10:3).
There is a way of reading this that offers a half consolation to Aaron: through those near to Me – though Samson Raphael Hirsch is surely more severe than Moses, when he says: “The more a person stands out from among the people as a teacher and a leader, the less will I show indulgence when that person does wrong.”
What is the nature of the wrong of the two sons, and why is it seen to be deserving of their death?
And we do need to interpret their death as punishment, it seems, rather than as a sort of technical incompetence – like the mistake of an electrician which leads to his electrocution: a dreadful consequence, but not in itself commensurate with any moral shortcoming.
Hirsch goes so far as to identify the actions of the sons with the changes Progressive rabbis have made to the tradition:
“We can understand that the death of the priestly youths…is the most solemn warning for all future priests (rabbis) against every subjective idea of what is right and becoming!”
Variously through the commentaries the interpretations of the fault of the sons include accusations of self-centredness, ruthless ambition, arrogance, insensitivity, failure to consult their elders, blind faith, religious zeal, youthful impatience, fanaticism.
A history of these interpretations will surely reflect the preoccupations of the times and conditions in which the communities lived, and from within which the voice of the commentator has sounded.
Today it may be that we can return to the curious hermeneutical silence of the scene, before Moses speaks up. We can join Aaron in holding a silence in which we consider that our approaches to the Divine, our initiatives which we make in our attempt to serve the good and the truth and the ways of justice, loving-kindness and mercy, are always made in the context of a great risk.
We, like Nadav and Abihu, must risk undertaking the initiative when we feel compelled to, and perhaps force ourselves on the Presence, but we have in this Torah the teaching that we may nevertheless be running counter to the Divine will, and the fire we bring may consume us.
In our generation we may do well to welcome a Torah which teaches us that we are today more than ever able to unleash much more than we can contain or understand.
Rabbi Tony Hammond
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.