Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            This week's Torah reading contains one of the most harrowing episodes in the entire Bible.  Chapter ten begins with the Divine execution of Nadav and Avihu, two sons of Aharon.  We're not sure what crime they've committed, but the shock of identifying with a parent losing children is palpable to any reader with kids.  Our empathy is challenged by Aharon's reaction.  Even a laconic statement could be taken up by all the parents reading this tale.  But Aharon is rendered silent and stoic by the incident.  The Hebrew word used, va'yidom, doesn't just connote silence, as va'yishtok would.  It hints at a soldier's response, since it also means to stand at attention.  Has he turned off all human emotion in the face of heavenly justice?  I don't think so, because six chapters later, when the Yom Kippur service is introduced, Aharon performs this majestic ceremony, after the death of his two sons.  The stony silence is a public front.  Inside all manner of humanity is churning, but he finds the strength to carry on and perform the holy rites.  Not easy!  Before returning to a comment on parenting.  I think we should try to answer the most obvious question:  What was their sin?

            There are all manner of attempts to fill in this gaping void left in the text.  The simplest and probably most popular answer is that they performed the Temple service while drunk.  This holy version of DUI (Duchaning Under the Influence) is suggested by juxtaposition.  Right after their demise the Torah records the prohibition of priests performing their duties while drunk.  That makes this a convenient suspect, because it's hanging around the scene of the crime.  Another likely possibility is taken from the context in the later reference.  When Aharon is told that he must enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, he is also informed by Moshe:  Speak to your brother Aaron, that he should not come at all times into the Holy within the dividing curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, so that he should not die (Leviticus 16:2).  In other words entering this precinct on other occasions is a capital crime.  So, maybe it was their transgression.  They entered the Sanctum Sanctorum without permission or at the wrong time.

            These answers, though plausible, ignore a phrase in the record of the event, eish zara asher lo tziva, an alien flame, which was not commanded (10:1).  What was this alien fire?  And what made it alien, or, perhaps, strange?  There are commentaries who claim that they brought it unbidden.  The mere fact that they performed a Temple service without God's command was enough to make the deed dire.  Others opine that the initial fire in the Mishkan or portable sanctuary was supposed to come down from heaven but they jumped the gun and brought their own earthly flame.  Maybe they did the most alien of acts, which teaches us a fundamental issue in our Divine service and a cardinal principal in parenting as well.  They simply did their own thing.

            We've just finished the holiday of Passover.  And none too early, my digestive system couldn't take any more matzah.  The holiday begins, of course, with the Seder.  At the Seder, the leader must declare that this story is what happened 'to me, when I left Egypt'.  At some point we must become our ancestors so that we can hand on the heritage to our descendants.  Jewish history is what happened to me, and will happen to you, as well.  This is so hard.  I can't be my great-grandfather.  He didn't even know about the Red Sox or the UConn women's basketball team.  My experiences aren't his and never can be.  Therefore, I can't duplicate his Divine service, but maybe I can replicate it.  I can do the same acts but in my own way, with my own nuances and emotions, thoughts and ideas.  I bring to the table new approaches, but not novel mitzvoth.  I believe that this is how we begin our Shmoneh Esreh, the Silent Devotion.  We say:  Blessed are You, God, our Lord and the Lord of our ancestors.  We're engaged in the exact same customs our ancestors did, but with our own idiom and energy.  If we replaced their acts with new performances, those new services would be alien and strange.  They would be zara.  We can add some stuff, and perform the old practices to new music and mojo, but who are we to push the delete button on age-old practices? 

            Now is the time to say something about parenting.   Parenting is the most rewarding human activity, while simultaneously the most frustrating.  The problem is clear.  How can I bequeath what's valuable to me in such a way that my progeny adopt it as their own, while maintaining its integrity?  It's not easy.  However, the way to begin is by letting your children know what's important to you and why.  This cup or that custom means a lot to me because it belonged (or was done) by my grandfather.  Then they watch as you either venerate or denigrate those acts and objects, by your actions and life style. 

            Nadav and Avihu were not bad people.  In a famous Midrash from parshat Achrei Mot they are specifically referred to as righteous or Zadikim.  Their failure or sin, if you will, wasn't in their intention.  But their act wasn't for the Temple precinct.  The critical nature of the incident was in their assumption that the Temple was for improvisation, not for veneration.  We make our ancestor's religion ours by keeping and guarding it, not by replacing it.

            Let's turn back to Aharon.  Why was he silent and abashed?  I think because he felt that he had failed his sons.  He gave them the enthusiasm, but not the discipline.  If we are to keep this faith community alive and recognizable as our heritage, we need both.  We find this story so poignant because it's our story, too.              

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