Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            Readers in Israel, please forgive me.  There is a short period when we are not in synch with you on the weekly Torah reading.  I'm writing for this window of time based on the Diaspora schedule, because that's where most of my readers are.  It's just another reminder that the Jewish experience is different outside the homeland.  As part of our Yom Ha'azmaut prayers, we must again implore our Maker that this situation swiftly end.  Look, it's only been 2733 years that the majority of Jews have been living outside of Israel.  Enough with the digression, it's time to discuss a very famous problem in this week's parsha, namely the deaths of Aharon's sons, Nadav and Avihu.

            There are many explanations for the hasty and harsh punishment for their unauthorized entry into the holiest precincts of the portable Temple.  Here are the pertinent verses:  And Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his pan, put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and they brought before the Lord foreign fire, which He had not commanded them. And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord (Leviticus 10:1-2).   Even though there are a lot of ways to deal with this issue, the opinions basically fall into two categories.  The first group assumes that the strong reaction of heaven was based upon the fact that Nadav and Avihu did something really bad and that they, themselves were terrible sinners.  Some said that the sin was related to idolatry, because the fire is called strange or foreign, meaning from sources outside our religion and tradition.  Others suggested that the heinous sin was entering the holy areas while drunk.  This opinion is based on context, because the next verses prohibited entering the Temple while intoxicated.  Coming before God requires a clear understanding of the distinctions between holy and profane.  This is the kind of fine distinctions which drunkenness prevents.  But there's another school of thought, based on the premise that Nadav and Avihu were very righteous and they acted in the name of heaven.

            So, if these gentlemen were indeed Zadikim, what was their crime and why the severity of the punishment?  Although there are many adherents to this position, I find the most interesting amongst the Chassidic masters.  This is because Chasidic thought often encourages the kind of ecstatic (or even drunken) behavior that the verses seem to describe and denigrate.  So, how do these scholars deal with an issue might be construed as an attack on Chassidic behavior?

            Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) wrote that through dancing, where one drinks wine that gladdens, which is the source of strength (gevura) in the understanding (bina) of God, one can come closer to spirituality and holy passion.  So, if wine and spontaneity enhance our religious experience what was wrong with the actions of Nadav and Avihu?  He explains that one who dances with the excitement of the yetzer (one's evil inclination or one's own enjoyment), this is called the sin of Nadav and Avihu, about which it is written: And they offered strange fire.  The fire was their own passion and elation, not God's and the Torah's.  There was perhaps pride and smugness associated with a feeling of great accomplishment, but it was all about them, not a sincere effort to attach to God.  Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook (1865-1935) also commented on this phenomenon:   When one follows the supernal feeling of the appearance of the holy spirit, or any wisdom or appearance in the world, without detailed connection to the Torah and its instructions, and the good traits that follow from it – this is the sin of Nadav and Avihu (Orot HaKadosh III).   Enthusiasm and excitement, even frenzy, can be wonderful if their motivation comes from the right source.

            This idea is expanded upon by the second Gerer Rebbe, the Sfat Emet (Rabbi Aryeh Yehuda Leib Alter, 1847-1905).  He states:  It says in the verse, "which He commanded them not." This teaches that the primary force of every human action must be the Divine command. For all of human reason is nullified by this force. Now Nadav and Avihu were exceedingly righteous men and they acted for the sake of heaven; but the command was missing. That's why we bless on the performance of commandments "Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us." The force of this command is more important than anything else (Shemini, 1876).  The Gerer Rebbe is explaining that this joy can be negative even if the impulse was pure, because we can't replace the Torah's framework and idiom with our own.

            This brings us to a common phenomenon in our modern world of religious experience.  Often we Jews look for meaning in our lives and religious experience within our souls in places other than Judaism.  Jews are often the leaders in the quest for spiritual growth in all sorts of places, from meditation to mysticism, from art to meta philosophy and many other alternatives along the way.  I don't think that any of this is necessarily bad, but if we want to avoid the error of Nadav and Avihu, we must be keep these endeavors in a Jewish context.

            If we use some New Wave music to help us perform a mitzvah in a more spiritual way, that's fine.  Someone uses art to help express the religious fervor in their prayers; that's great.  Another meditates to enhance a Torah experience; that's marvelous.  It's all wonderful until the moment when the support system replaces the Jewish core of our spiritual lives.  Then we've committed the sin of Nadav and Avihu.  That person may be living out a meaningful experience, but without Torah connection, it's not Jewish and becomes irrelevant to the continuity of our people.  We'd hate to lose these people who could add so much to the continued struggle to keep Judaism alive and vibrant.  Just like we still regret having lost Nadav and Avihu.  Let's use these other media to help us connect to Torah, not God forbid, to replace it.           

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