Fiery Zeal

Shemini By :  Lewis Warshauer Posted On Apr 17, 2004 / 5764

The Bible presents an idealized picture of life – how good it could be – but tempers that picture with frequent intrusions of tragedy. The creation story itself sets that pattern. The Garden of Eden is perfect, but human beings do not live there for long. Adam and Eve disobey God, and are banished into a world increasingly gripped by cruelty.

The Book of Leviticus does not tell of the rebuilding of Eden. On the contrary, it lays out elaborate rituals for the atonement of sin, and in doing so, assumes that sin is unavoidable. Yet, the institution of those rituals is a cause for celebration. In Chapter 8, Aaron and his sons are ordained as the Kohanim who will perform, among other duties, the atonement rituals for the nation. In Chapter 9, at the beginning of this week’s parashah, they begin their duties of sacrificial offerings, culminating with Aaron blessing the assembled people (Leviticus 9:22.) This exalted moment does not last long. Aaron’s elder sons bring what the Torah terms “strange fire” (aish zarah) that God had not commanded, and fire, in turn, comes out from God and kills them.

Commentators have long speculated, and disagreed, on what exactly Aaron’s elder sons did to incur so harsh a punishment. Given the lack of consensus on why they were killed, it is worth examining the effect of their removal. In the larger context of the Bible, the fate of Nadav and Avihu is far from unusual. Nadav and Avihu are part of a long series of elder sons who are excluded from their father’s inheritance. Ishmael is sent away from Abraham’s household. Esau does not receive the full paternal blessing. Reuben is passed over in the settling of primacy among the Jacob’s sons One might say that these examples are not fully relevant to the case of Nadav and Avihu. They are presented as two, co-equal sons. Yet in a later episode the Bible tells of two sons, also, apparently, of equal status, who were excluded from inheriting their father’s position. The prophet Samuel’s two sons, Joel and Aviyah, were appointed to judgeships by their father. But they accepted bribes and subverted justice. (I Samuel 8:2-3) They are not Samuel’s successors. Saul is, and then David.

Nadav and Avihu can be compared to the first pair of brothers in the Bible: Cain and Abel. God looks with favor on the offering made by Abel, but not that of Cain – at which point Cain kills Abel. In the case of Nadav and Avihu, they both offer something God had not commanded, and are thus both punished. It might very well be that for the purpose of the story the Torah wishes to tell, Nadav and Avihu must be removed in order to make way for their younger brothers who will succeed them: Elazar and Itamar (Leviticus 10:12) Elazar’s son, Pinhas, will later intervene in a burst of zealotry and kill an Israelite who is judged to be leading the nation toward idolatry. Pinhas is rewarded by God for having, as the Torah puts it, turned back God’s wrath by displaying his passion (or zeal) for God. (Numbers 25:11-12) Perhaps this account of Pinhas can provide a clue to the disappearance of Nadav and Avihu. The message here seems to be that God does require passion, which can also be called fire, from the Kohanim- but it must be the fire of jealousy for God’s sake. Nadav and Avihu were consumed perhaps, because they were not jealous and zealous enough – or perhaps in the wrong way.

All this is a disturbing message for those who see the greatest virtue in moderation – and moderation is certainly an attribute widely praised in Jewish sacred literature. One of the great difficulties for a person committed to any cause – religious or otherwise – is how much passion and zealotry to bring forth. Too much, and you will burn those around you and probably yourself as well. Not enough, and no one is moved, for motion requires heat.

The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.