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Sermon given by Jason Lever

15th April / 24th Nisan


Cain and Abel. Jacob and Esau. Moses and Aaron. Nadab and Abihu.

All brothers in our Torah. But spot the odd one out of the pairings?

Yes, the last two who we just heard about in today’s Parasha Shemini.

But not for long – just in the two sentences in which they feature by name. This is a clue perhaps as to why they wouldn’t be the first brothers’ names that spring to mind. As an avid watcher of Countdown while I’m on my treadmill, I’d bet Alexander Armstrong that this might be a pointless answer if you asked 100 people… even at Limmud.

So what do we hear about these lesser known brothers in our Chumash?

“Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered the Eternal alien fire, which had not been enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Eternal and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Eternal”.

I think another reason for their low profile is that we’re not too sure what to make of this. The nature of their offences seems obscure.

Were they just naughty boys who got their just deserts in the harsh disposal of Biblical justice? Or should their plights be seen through the lens of one of those unsettling examples of an all-powerful God who brooks no dissent? In either case, nothing more to be seen, ladies and gentlemen, move on, haven’t you got better stories in the Tanakh to talk about….

Well, you know our sages, they do like a whodunnit, or in this case whydunnit? Why were the brothers “attempting something original”, in Rabbi Plaut’s words, that was so beyond the pale? And what was the reason for such Divine summary justice for a violation of procedure? (Tony’s very patient with us if we shut the Ark door a bit late or Michael if we start the procession the wrong direction!)

I think the cases of Nadab and Abihu are actually quite fascinating, once you start to delve into the possible answers. So, to be clear, the brothers were not presenting the regular incense offering of the morning. They introduced a man-made and alien fire, rather than from the Divinely kindled flames of the alter. In turn, this resulted in an emanation of the Divine flame descending on the alter and destroying them both.

For me, when I’ve read this before, I have associated alien with an aspect of idolatry, which provides a pretty clear cut case for the prosecution. Especially backed up by Moses’ harsh proscription of Aaron, their father, being able to observe any of the customary mourning rituals – the text says of he and the remaining siblings, “do not bare your heads and do not rend your clothes” – which seems in line with punishment for idolatry. But I have now seen that they are many more interpretations.

In the majority camp are those explanations that focus on the characters and behaviours of Nadab and Abihu, how they acted in the moment and more broadly. Robert Alter focuses on alien fire being less about the dangers of veering towards other god worship (avodah zarah) and more about it being a strange fire, from the word zarah, as in a stranger. This plays down idolatry and more about using something unauthorised or irregular, like a stranger without the right resident permit. On top of that, they drew too near to the Holy of Holies. And they weren’t wearing the right garb, the requisite priestly clothes, or had neglected to wash their hands and feet. (And again, our Wardens don’t check on this as we come in to this Sanctuary on a Shabbat morning!).

In a similar vein, other sages focus on the brothers being under the influence of glugging too much of the wine that was employed in the sacrificial libations. The textual clue being that in a later verse their father is admonished to “drink no wine or other intoxicant… when entering the Tent of Meeting” to undertake High Priestly duties (And no, your Wardens are not subject to random breath tests, we trust them!). More broadly, Nadab and Abihu bear their guilt in their character failings of arrogance and irreverence – extrapolating from their ritual mis-step that they had refused to marry and have children as they felt no woman was worthy of them. They lacked respect for their Dad and Uncle, not taking counsel from, or honouring, Aaron and Moses; and even being impatient for them to die so they could assume the leadership, a broigas going back to being low in the pecking order behind them and the seventy elders ascending Mount Sinai to hear God’s words. With the connotations of idolatrous practices, or even operating the right rituals but under the wrong influence, these offences come under the rubric of failure to “distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the impure and the pure”. And there is a low bar for desecrating God’s name – hillul hashem – rather than sanctifing it – kiddush hashem. The higher the office – and don’t forget they were being groomed for the succession of High Priest from their father, Aaron – the more is expected and demanded. What backs up this interpretation is that the very next chapter in this Parasha sets out the dietary laws in most detail. Where the permitted and disallowed foods is set out in similar terms of kadosh (holy or sacred), and its opposite.

The other main school of thought is one I admit I quite like, even with its roots in Hassidism. That is, their ill fates are put down to over-zealousness, rather than profanity. They wanted to come as close to God as possible. But, they got too carried away.

For Rabbi Sacks, they lacked humility and thought too much of themselves. In his words, “they forgot the difference between a priest and a prophet”. And they were no prophets, still wet-behind-the-ears priests in training.

Yet others paint the brothers in a more favourable light. The Biur (the name for 18th century commentators at the time of the Haskalah) put it, “out of a superabundance of joy they lost their heads”. So while their motives were noble, inspired by love and joy, their punishment – in its severity – had to match the high spiritual level they had attained. Indeed, one translation of Nadav’s name is generous. And so this defence of, and rationale for, their actions was tied up with their desire to show “greater affection and zeal” in their priestly duties. They just over did it.

In a more Hassidic mindframe, the brothers embrace death in order to enter into an experience of God which is so intense or ecstatic that it costs them their lives. Though I prefer the explanation of my favourite Tanakh scholar, Nehama Liebowitz, that their fault was giving way to “a religious ecstasy which is free from the trammels of normative religious discipline, unrestrained, and unsubserviant to the divine will”.

So, to sum this up, a lesson from the brothers can be seen as highlighting the value or need by God to incalculate in us a level of self-control that sets us apart from other peoples. Where they erred, and paid the price, was for “using their own initiative in the arena of the holy”. A Biblical reminder early in Vayikra, which is full of rules and rituals, that when serving God in the ritual realm even good intention does not make one innocent when making mistakes.

As Rabbi Samuel Raphael Hirsch (of 19th century Germany) said, “closeness and nearness to God can only be attained by being disciplined to his Will”. This may sound a very rigid application of following our religion, but he explains further that this principle separates us from idolatry, where “the idolator wants to bend his god to his own will”. The brothers offered up their own fire rather than waiting for the fire to come from God – which to me is very reminiscent of the better known instance of Moses striking the rock to bring forth water for the people during their Wilderness wanderings, rather than wait for this to come from God’s own actions. And his punishment, as you’ll recall, was not to take them into the Promised Land.

I’d like to think that there’s a message from this Biblical tale of catastrophe for our Jewish observance today. This may be about there being times to be creative and individualistic, and then there’s times to follow the normative rules. A balance I feel comfortable with provided there can – and I believe there are – some clear limitations to our ritual practices that are sensitive to our spiritual and physical needs. I’m thinking of the opt out from resting on Sabbath to save a life and the very clear limits to mourning periods.

As my Dad would have said, you pays your money and you takes your choice of how it’s possible to understand the fates of Nadav and Abihu. But I hope we squeezed our value’s worth out of the three verses of their cameo appearance out of the 5,852 verses in the Torah.

Shabbat shalom.

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