The Mysterious Death Of Aaron’s Sons


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 7:12 p.m. (Fri.); 7:15 p.m. (Mon.); 8:17 p.m. (Tue.)
Last chametz: 10:43 a.m.; burn by 11:49 a.m. (Mon.)
Torah: Leviticus 16:1-18:30
Haftarah: Malachi 3:4-24
Havdalah: 8:13 p.m. (Sat.);
8:18 p.m. (Wed.)

This week’s parasha begins with one of the most enigmatic lines in the Torah: God speaks to Moshe “after the death of Aaron’s sons who died when they came too close to God’s presence.” These lines hearken back to Parshat Shemini, which provides more of a hint, but never a clear explanation: Nadav and Avihu brought their own pans, put incense on it, and offered some kind of alien fire. But what exactly caused them to die, and why is this referred to here?

Various Midrashim try to explain: Their strange fire was ego and ambition, or perhaps they came in drunk or were improperly dressed. The cryptic explanations only add to the mystery. Some see Nadav and Avihu as tzaddikim, and except for this infraction, it appears then that they led exemplary lives. Their deaths are mentioned four times in the Torah and in each instance we’re only told about the strange fire and nothing else.

Were Nadav and Avihu so iconoclastic that they sought to do things their own way, with their own motivations, not caring about tradition? Or where they inspired by religious fervor but utilized the wrong action? In other cases we find other rituals not commanded by God, such as simchat beit hashoevah, the water drawing festival, but there are no negative repercussions.

The Netziv of the Volzhin Yeshiva explained that the “strange fire” was a metaphor. Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen suggested that they were “on fire” in forging their own path of spirituality. At the time when they should have been communally focused, they were focused on their own spiritual paths, what was meaningful to them. In essence they were the first to look to themselves for inspiration, what was personally meaningful to them, as opposed to upholding the tradition they were commanded to follow.

On the one hand we need religious passion in our lives. We can’t just take a laissez faire attitude toward our encounters with God, mitzvot and daily religious practice. We have to work at it. But at the same time, we have to be careful about crafting a spiritual life that is so self-centered, so ego driven, that we end up forgetting that we are part of a community, and needing to see beyond our own spiritual needs.

We can’t forget what the Rabbis in the Midrash note: Nadav and Avihu did not actually die. Rather, their bodies remained but their souls were consumed. They became burnt out. The fervor quickly dissipated and what was exciting one day no longer was moving the next day.

When we think of our community, what happens if we’re not “in the mood” to pay a shiva visit, or make a minyan, or give charity? And there are times when we do show up but the kavanah (spiritual intention) is not there. Some of us may live like reverse marranos: We look like fervent Jews on the outside but internally, spiritually, we are going through the motions. The Kotzker Rebbe once said that the most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart. If we overdo our fervor or lose our fervor and don’t feel it in our hearts, we can become like Nadav and Avihu, burnt out once the excitement wears off.

In Achrei Mot, when God tells Moshe that Aaron should not enter the sanctuary, that reminds us that we also can’t be living in the bubble of the Mishkan. We have to live in the real world and see how we can be Torah-true Jews, observant of ritual and ethics: mentsches in how we eat and speak, careful about what goes into our mouths and what comes out of our mouths; mentsches in both our shuls and our work. We must never denigrate those who seem to live a life less pious than ours, as we struggle with our motives and our intentions, our shortcomings and our desires.

It makes then perfect sense why this parsha goes on to describe the Yom Kippur rituals and why, in turn, we read it on Yom Kippur. Yet, with Passover soon upon us, this is a perfect time to engage this parsha with a spiritual self-analysis. We can take a moment to rid ourselves of spiritual chometz as much as the bread-chometz and figure out the right way to come closer to God without getting burned.

Sincere devotion requires work, not just rote. But amidst our rigor let’s not lose sight of how to properly channel our ruach and our passion and not find ourselves spiritually deficient.

Adena K. Berkowitz is founder and scholar-in-residence of Kol HaNeshamah NYC, and a visiting lecturer at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.