The Strange Fire (Shemini)
By Reb David
This week’s portion (Shemini) offers one of the most symbolically important and challenging narratives of Torah. How we understand the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, says much about how we understand ritual, innovation, diversity and community in spiritual life.
Over the last several weeks, Torah ushered us into our ancestors’ traditions of ritual purity and the ancient altar’s eternal flame, which today symbolizes the eternal Presence. After such focus on the physical rituals of the ancient sacrificial system, Torah recounts the experience of Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aaron the High Priest (Lev. 10:1-2):
וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי ה׳ אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם
וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי ה׳ וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם וַיָּמֻתוּ לִפְנֵי ה׳
[Nadav and Avihu] brought before God a strange fire that [God] did not command them. A fire went out from God and consumed them, and they died before God.
This story sears the soul. Sons of Aaron, priests in their own right, died by the priestly ritual fire. Worse, they seemed to die by divine will. Why? All Torah tells us of what Nadav and Avihu did is that they brought a “strange fire” that God “did not command.” What is this “strange fire”? Did it warrant death? Did God kill Nadav and Avihu? What kind of God would do such a thing?
Some of our ancestors were so troubled by this story that they held Nadav and Avihu to be criminals. Some wrote that Nadav and Avihu were drunk rebels approaching God with ill intent. Others imagined that their “strange fire” was idolatrous. Still others held Nadav and Avihu to be upstanding but, as priests, held to an exacting standard.
These understandings still lay the death of Nadav and Avihu at God’s proverbial feet, and it’s hard to accept that God would penalize any divine service with death. That’s why Rabbi Shefa Gold writes that Nadav and Avihu made a divine offering so high and bright that they gave their very souls to God, an ultimate form of love. Critically, Torah does not say that God killed Nadav and Avihu but rather that they died in God’s fire. This phrasing is revealing. Moses knew that none could see or touch God and continue living an earthly life (Ex. 33:20), but maybe Nadav and Avihu got too close. Maybe they insisted on touching the Infinite, and by doing so, became part of it. To human eyes, becoming part of the Infinite light may look like “death” by divine fire.
One lesson of Nadav and Avihu is that rituals are pointers to spiritual life, not the point of spiritual life. Rituals that deepen our lived commitment to holiness nurture us sustainably, so we can love others as ourselves and heal the world. Maybe that’s where Nadav and Abihu went wrong: in their zeal, maybe they burned so bright that they burned up, good for no one. We all can have peak experiences of transcendence, bliss and wow, but mundane daily life is no less our spiritual calling. Our inner flames burn sustainably when we live in balance, mindfully and lovingly in this world, so we can share our light with others and not burn up.
Another lesson concerns humility, diversity and tolerance. None of us can know for sure what God wants. Whatever Nadav and Avihu’s “strange fire” was, maybe they were too sure of themselves. One’s sense of right may to another seem wrong; one’s fire may to another seem “strange.” Maybe the death of Nadav and Avihu is a metaphor to symbolize that hubris can choke the flow of spiritual life. Nadav and Avihu teach us humility in spiritual life: we must honor difference with curiosity and tolerance because our own lives and truths may be the most “strange” of all.
Not flaming out with excess zeal or arrogance, honoring difference, tending the inner flame in a sustainable way, bringing light to all corners of daily life – such is spiritual life. May we all learn from the legacy of Nadav and Avihu, and may we all shine in their tribute.