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Shemini 5780

04/17/2020 11:58:44 AM


Shmuel Honig


This week's parasha begins by describing the sacrifices brought following the installation of the כהנים, on the eighth day after the construction of the משכן. The Torah then relates the story of נדב and אביהו, who brought an “אש זרה,” an “alien fire,” into the holiest section of the Tabernacle and were consumed by fire. Rashi on this passage cites the opinions of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yishmael, who attempt to reconcile what the sons of אהרן did wrong to deserve this punishment. According to Rabbi Eliezer, they were killed because they issued a halakhic ruling in front of their teacher, משה. Rabbi Yishmael says that their misdeed was entering the holy area while intoxicated.

The assumption underlying the opinions above is that נדב and אביהו sinned in some manner. By bringing their sacrifice, they did something wrong, and were therefore punished with death. And while the aforementioned explanations are motivated by textual considerations, I would like to suggest a different approach.

Indeed, there is sufficient textual evidence that allows us to reach a different conclusion, that נדב and אביהו did not sin at all. In several weeks, we will read parashat אחרי מות, which describes the exact circumstances under which אהרן is allowed to enter the holiest section of the משכן. As the first words of that parasha tell us explicitly, these directives were given only after the deaths of נדב and אביהו, and not before. On its face, the implication seems clear: נדב and אביהו did not know, and could not have known, these guidelines. Furthermore, the language used to describe God’s reaction to their offering - “ותצא אש מלפני ה’ ותאכל,” “and fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed” - is verbatim the language used in the previous chapter, upon completion of the sacrifices that God did request. The reactions are identical: just as we do not attribute “displeasure” to God’s response in the prior chapter, neither do we need to here.

It is true that נדב and אביהו entered and brought an offering that was not commanded of them. They did so, on the face of the text, without the preparations and precautions that are typical of sacrifices that are accepted without tragedy. But it is not necessary to ascribe a sin to their actions. Their intentions were good, and we do not know of any warning given in advance by משה ,אהרן, or Hashem.

So, then, why did they die? It would seem that their fate was the natural consequence of their actions. They did not “deserve” to die for any wrongdoing, and God’s reaction was neither born of anger nor vengeance. They were simply unprepared to face the glory of God, and to engage the spontaneous reception that awaited them. Actions beget consequences.

Explaining the episode of נדב and אביהו in this manner may seem cruel or unfair. Our human tendencies compel us to seek answers and explanations, to understand the reasoning behind acts of God or the purpose of developments in the natural world around us. And, at times, performing these thought exercises can be productive and helpful, as they challenge us to examine our own actions and ways of life. Perhaps there really is something that we can improve upon that can mitigate the risks of similar, undesirable outcomes in the future.

At other times, however, statements attributing natural or other events to perceived transgressions, while cloaked in a veneer of piety and reverence to God, serve to display the opposite, a lack of faith. By assuming that there must be a reason understandable to us, we minimize and downgrade the power and wonder of God. We imply that, as humans, we are the ones responsible and in control.

Ultimately, it is important to realize that God acts in ways that are, and will remain, mysterious to us. Sometimes we do not have the answers, and do not understand why. Be it a hurricane, an earthquake, or the novel coronavirus, sometimes we just do not know. And that is okay. We can turn inward to examine ourselves without understanding. In fact, we need not even wait for tragedy.

Wed, August 12 2020 22 Av 5780