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Parshat Shemini: The Sin of Loving Too Much, D'var Torah by Jack Muskat, April 7, 2018

18/04/2018 12:00:52 PM


“It was in those dogs to care too much and try too hard—

-from Alistair MacLeod’s novel, No Great Mischief

Today’s Parsha has an interesting focus. It begins with the sacrifices offered on the eighth day of the inauguration of the Mishkan:

Speak to B’nai Yisrael and tell them to take unblemished animals: a goat for a sin offering, and a yearling calf and a lamb for a burnt offering, and a bull and a ram for a peace offering (Leviticus, 9:3)

The text goes on to carefully describe the ritual sacrifice procedure performed by Aaron for the people:

Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them…Moses and Aaron then went into the Mishkan and when they came out they blessed the people and the Presence of the Lord appeared to all the people… Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offerings. And all the People saw and shouted and fell on their faces. (CH 9: 22-24)

And all was Good for the People. Their sacrifices were accepted. But for Nadav and Avihu? No such luck!  Just imagine!  Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, the most adored and celebrated leaders of the Next Generation of Priests, who were called upon to succeed Aaron and Moses in the Mishkan and, having just witnessed their father successfully perform not one, but two sacrifices, confidently strode into the Holy of Holies, only to burst into flames and go up in smoke.  Sort of like watching a Tesla on autopilot get into a fatal crash. It’s just not supposed to happen.  So, too, the death of our two young priests, their   actions and the reasons for G-d’s retribution remain a mystery for us to this day.  Even Aaron was struck dumb by what he saw and mourned in silence.

then Moses said to Aaron: This is what the Lord meant when He said: ‘Through those near me I show Myself Holy, and Gain Glory before all the People. And Aaron was silent” VAYIDOM, AHARON

 Why were Nadav and Avihu incinerated? There are several explanations offered by our sages over the millennia, And I will touch on these in a moment. But what of the People? What was their sin that needed expiation through sacrifice? And why two burnt offerings?

We are told that Aaron’s offering was to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf while that of the people was for the sale of Joseph. And since the sins stemmed from different root causes, different animals were required by the Torah to reflect the differences in the character flaws that led to the sins in the first place.  When the people demanded that Aaron build them a “god” to replace Moses, they suffered from an excessive dependence on him. They thought they could not endure without Moses—therefore Aaron, brought a calf which always follows its mother submissively. When the brothers sold Joseph, they signified a rebellious spirit, for they refused to accept Jacob’s choice of Joseph as the leader of the family. They behaved like a brazen goat, so that was the animal used to atone for their sin,

 (Rav Y.D. Soloveitchik)

Now, back to the deaths of the two priests. What was their transgression? Here are but four:

  1. They entered the Sanctuary drunk (as it is later written, “and G-d spoke to Aaron, do not drink wine, lest you die (10:8-9)
  2. They decided on a Torah law in the presence of their teacher (“they brought G-d a strange fire” 
  3. They were unmarried and childless. “Rabbi Levi said: They were conceited, many women awaited them eagerly but what did they say? “Our uncle is King, our other uncle is head of a tribe, our father is the High Priest, we are his assistants. What woman is worthy of us?” (Midrash Rabbah 20:10)
  4. They were too eager to succeed to the top job. Moses and Aaron were walking along with Nadav and Avihu behind them. Nadav said to Avihu: “When the elders die, you and I will lead this generation.” G-d said to them: “Let’s see who buries whom”. (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin, 52a)

If you look at these sins, they can be seen as failings in judgement (drunkenness), hubris (challenging a teacher, in this case Moses and by extension, G-d), vanity, (no women were good enough for this pair of good looking Jewish boys), and ambition (we want your job).

I am sure there are other interpretations and I welcome our congregants to share them, if time allows, but let me just focus on what I think is the main one, and which opens the second chapter in our Parsha, chapter 10:

“…Each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which he had not enjoined upon them.” (10:1

which he had not enjoined upon them.  What did the poor priests do? They tried to improve on a Mitzvah. Why did they do it? Because they loved G-d. What did they hope to get out of it? Money, Fame, Recognition? None of the above. What motivated them? Ahavat Yisrael. The Love of Israel. They did it of devotion and enthusiasm on what wat to have been the happiest day in the life of the people, the consecration of the Mishkan on the eighth day.

And yet, G-d did not command it, did not seek it, did not want it, and when he received it he was so burned up that he burned them up. Hey, it was just an honest mistake. And this the dilemma our sages faced. How to provide a rationale for G-d’s wrath in the face of a seemingly mild transgression. Hence the search for dirt in the pasts of these two young men. They must have been drunk, they used the wrong incense, they wore the wrong vestments, they were arrogant and ambitious, they weren’t married, etc. etc.

Rabbi Matis Weinberg in his wonderfully original Treatise, Frameworks, a commentary on the Torah, posits an intriguing notion, namely that when we love too much, we cross boundaries, and in so doing, we risk violating the very love that captured our hearts in the first place. This is an age-old truth, the danger of daemonic love, the obsessive and possessive and ultimately destructive love that burns everything in its path, and has been described so well in myth and literature as varied as Shakespeare, Patricia Highsmith’s the Talented Mr. Ripley, and even the now classic musical Les Miserables some of whose haunting lyrics, which I won’t sing, go, “There was a time—then it all went wrong. I dreamed a dream in time gone by, when hope was high and life worth living. I dreamed that love would never die, I dreamed that God would be forgiving. Then I was young and unafraid…

So, too, our young priests had a dream...a dream to serve G-d. And it was lost. And not for lack of trying.

 Do think Nadav and Avihu were sinners? Because they acted out of love? Or that G-d is trying to teach us that tragedy can burst forth out of happiness, and that happiness never lasts, so be careful, a lesson, mind you, not lost on the Jewish people, as if we need daily reminders.

Rabbi Matis Weinberg is exhorting us not to succumb to adolescent love, that romantic delusion that subsumes all reason, where two become one, but to consider adult love, where each of us can love the other while maintaining our own separateness, confident that our partner while respect us in turn. The sin of Nadav and Avihu was to try to get too close to G-d, to transgress that boundary.  To do more than is asked. Sort of like the new and improve Coke, if you remember that far back.

We see instances of love gone awry every day, from honour killings to militant veganism, from extreme fitness to religious fundamentalism of any stripe, where ideology trumps reason and mercy. As Jews we have struggled with this since we accepted the yoke of Judaism, and are caught on a high wire act between a loving and merciful G-d, and a judging and vengeful Jehovah.  If we choose unwisely, we will get burned. Or drown, just like the dogs in Alistair McLeod’s lyrical novel, No Great Mischief, who, rather than be left ashore, swam out to sea to be with their masters, so strong was their love.  Sometimes, the right answer is plain as day. Sometimes it is not, and we drown or get burned trying. That is all Nadav and Avihu tried to do. And they paid the price. The price of life.



Feder, Avraham, Rabbi.  Torah Through a Zionist Vision. Gefen Publishing(2008

Meam Lo’ez, (Rabbi Yaakov Culi) Torah Anthology: Leviticus: Shemini

Riskin, Shlomo, Rabbi.  Torah Lights: A Biblical Commentary. Maggid (2009)

Weinberg, Matis, Rabbi. Frameworks: Leviticus. The Foundation for Jewish Publications (1999)

Thu, 23 May 2024 15 Iyar 5784