D’var Torah: Shemini by Cantor David Reinwald
My focus on this week’s parashah immediately turned to one of the most concerning stories I know from the Torah. This is the story of Nadav and Abihu, two of the four sons of Aaron, who commit an egregious sin for which they cannot atone. In turn, they are punished immediately by death as they in turn offered “strange fire” before God, to which God responded with fire directed toward them. (Lev 10:1-2) In studying this passage, I learned a great deal about how the classic commentators have tried to at least fashion some logic into just what exactly the great sins of these two kids were. Yes, I called them kids, because that is who they were, and I will come back to that.
In Midrash Vayikra Rabba 20:8, it determines that there were four sins committed by Nadav and Abihu, not just one. It pieces this together from the original and first narrative of this tragedy and then from three later mentions, one at Lev. 16:1, and the other two at Numbers 3:4 and 26:61. It says that they drew near to God (and we could have much discussion as to what “drew near” really means), sacrificed (perhaps taking on a responsibility that was not in their hands), offered “strange fire” (meaning not to God, but as worship of idolatry), and the Midrash also notes they did not consult one another. It derives the latter from specific language saying that “each one his censor,” meaning that each of the two brothers acted upon his own.
Many of the commentators have had issues with the severe punishment of this story, long before I did. It is at least comforting to know that I am not the only one struggling to understand the situation, and that this has been a struggle for many generations. The commentators note that for the severity of the punishment, there was never a spoken prohibition directed to the two boys, lest it may have just been general knowledge. The end result of the situation leaves Aaron in a state of mourning, even if the Torah says little of it. In a festive moment which immediately follows, we see that Aaron, the great voice behind Moses, is now “silent.” (Lev. 10:3)
Nadav and Abihu were kids, and as we know, children make mistakes. Yet, from those mistakes, they can be taught great lessons, and sometimes it is that very experience which becomes essential to the creation of a more critical self-identity. I saw the documentary Bully this past weekend, which explores various cases of student bullying in small towns in Oklahoma. This movie centered on a fact of an epidemic we are all too aware of today. There is a real crisis happening, but I do believe there is a solution, and that solution lies in the greater consciousness of everyone who plays a part in the raising and teaching of our next generation. We all have to be partners together to get there.
It seems that in the case of Nadav and Abihu, there was no partnership. Maybe this is just one example of a situation that is out of our hands, leaving us standing there to say ‘why did this happen?’ or ‘why did this have to happen?’ We’re often left in the aftermath wondering how if just one piece of the puzzle was placed a bit more properly, then there may have been a different outcome. And, it is a sore lesson to learn from tragedy. We wish it would have been perfect from the start. The story of Nadav and Abihu is certainly a wake-up call in the Torah. It is not okay that this happened, and we as carriers of the legacy of the tragedy must build from the wreckage and inspire greater courage in the future to do what is right.