Self-Will, Devotion and Strange Fire…
Posted by Henric C. Jensen on May 22, 2006
“And Nadav and Avihu died before the LORD, when they offered strange fire before the LORD, in the wilderness of Sinai, and they had no children; and Eleazar and Ithamar ministered in the priest’s office in the presence of Aaron their father.” (Bamidbar/Numbers 3:4)
“And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.”(Vayikra/Leviticus 10:1-2)
This is a really interesting text. Two of Aharon’s son’s are killed when they go to do service in the Mishkan(Tent of Meeting) – but for what are they killed? The text in Bamidbar is not very forthcoming with an explanation, so we have to look at the parallell text in Vayikra for an answer – they offered fire before the L-RD about which they had not been commanded – it not being commanded by G-d, but coming from their own intense devotion, their own desire, rather than the inspiration of G-d, made it foreign to the House of G-d.
Some Sages suggest that they were drunk, and brought the incense offering as a result of being intoxicated – this is indicated through the fact that in Vayikra 10:9 “‘Drink no wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tent of meeting, that ye die not; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations.” Torah doesn’t prohibit something unless there is a reason, a practical example of behaviour that is unwanted or inappropriate.
Other Sages suggest that Nadav and Avihu were so intensly devoted to serving the Eternal One that they misused the privilege in an attempt to draw even closer to G-d than even their Father, Aharon, and that they were killed for that attempt, for wanting more of G-d than the rest of the Priest and the People. This would be indicated by the words “which He had not commanded them.”
The nature of a command is that it is spoken from G-d to us – i.e it is G-d who approaches us through His Mitzvot. Nadav and Avihu turned that order on it’s head and decided to approach G-d, basically without being invited and therefore without being properly prepared. They went individually, not in concert with each other, nor in concert with the other Priests, which in a sense made them vulnerable.
Rav Kook suggests that they failed to see the dynamic between the Sacred and the Mundane, the Spiritual and the Physical, that they lacked the understanding that if you “go up the mountain” you have to “come down the mountain”.
“The noble sons of the High Priest, Nadav and Avihu, drew their inspiration from the wellspring of Bina. They sought the spiritual pleasantness that characterizes this elevated realm, the limited grandeur that is accessible to our world. Due to their profound awareness of personal greatness, however, they mistakenly saw in the holy realm of Bina the ultimate source of reality. They placed all of their goals in this spiritual world.”
They forgot that they were serving the People before G-d as well as G-d before the People, and wanted to remain within the Spirtual/Sacred Realm, keeping the Insight and Beauty of Torah and G-d to themselves. Basically, they went for themselves, and not for G-d or for the people. The Strange Fire were their own strong but misguided desire to learn about the Mystery of G-d without sharing the knowledge with the rest of us as leaders and teachers.
Drawing near to G-d is all good – and we are supposed to, we are commanded to walk with G-d and to offer up our supplications and our gratitude – we are supposewd to have a relationship with G-d, but we are not supposed to stay “on the mountain” – we need to tend to the Mundane, we need to pay attention to the people around us, because ultimately, they the one’s we serve.