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Nadav and Avihu Strange Fire

Monday, 16 April, 2018 - 1:37 pm


student.jpgIn this week’s Torah portion, Shemini, we are introduced to Kashrut laws, or what defines a Kosher animal. Split hooves, chewing cud, fins and scales, the whole nine yards. And there are a lot of lessons to be learned from this subject matter, none of which I will discuss today.

Instead, I will focus on an episode with Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. Nadav and Avihu were both priests in the Tabernacle, a makeshift travelling temple in the desert. They are remembered in the Torah for offering an improper sacrifice to G-d and their actions have made them scrutinized by scholars for decades. Wrongfully so, I think.

וַיַּקְרִ֜יבוּ לִפְנֵ֤י ה' אֵ֣שׁ זָרָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֧ר לֹ֦א צִוָּ֖ה אֹתָֽם: and they brought before the Lord foreign fire, which He had not commanded them.

וַתֵּ֥צֵא אֵ֛שׁ מִלִּפְנֵ֥י ה' וַתֹּ֣אכַל אוֹתָ֑ם וַיָּמֻ֖תוּ לִפְנֵ֥י יְהֹוָֽה: And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.

Nadav and Avihu were responsible for performing basic religious functions, including offering traditional sacrifices. However, in this instance, they brought forth a “strange fire” and were punished accordingly.

Rather than to write off these two characters as “drunk fools,” as they’re commonly interpreted to be, I’m here to defend them. They did not offer this “strange fire” out of malice; they offered it out of service.

Throughout college, we make irrational decisions to garner approval from others. We partake in toxic gossip about our friends to show we’re “in the know”, we agonize over Instagram captions to generate satisfaction from distant friends and we participate in destructive habits to “fit in” with the cool crowd. All the while, we justify our “strange” actions by their intended results: approval from our peers.

Commentaries are quick to assert a few possible scenarios for why Nadav and Avihu were punished for offering a “strange fire” to G-d: they were drunk, they improperly prepared the sacrifice, they lacked authorization and they entered forbidden areas. These potential scenarios seek to rationalize the punishment Nadav and Avihu endured. But truth be told, none of us can know what truly warranted this punishment. This punishment was delivered from G-d, by G-d because of a misstep to G-d. There are two types of crimes: those between one person and another and those between a person and G-d. Punishments for crimes of the former include penalties, fines and jail time. Punishments of the latter include, well, death by Divine fire. Just as we can’t understand the punishment, we can’t understand the reasoning either.

Perhaps Nadav and Avihu offered this sacrifice to seek approval from G-d. After all, their priest status committed them to lifelong service to G-d. Perhaps, this sacrifice was an attempt to show G-d their commitment to the Tabernacle, the service and the Jewish people. Perhaps they acted with pure intentions, but they just executed it very poorly. And since they did it on such a grand stage, the consequences were great. But we don’t have as much at stake today.

People are often judged by their actions, not their intentions. Of course, people should be held accountable for their actions, but to judge someone’s intentions and character solely by the result of their actions is naïve. People are multifaceted, dynamic creatures who make mistakes. In our everyday lives, our peers make mistakes and we are quick to judge them for them.

I’d like to offer an alternative method. Next time your friend, family, roommate, classmate and even professor make a mistake, take a step back, consider the intentions, and go from there. That will lead to a greater level of understanding between you and your peers and more productive decision-making moving forward.Life is full of mistakes, and we are bound to make them. So go out, make mistakes, learn from them, but don’t forget to allow others to learn from them too. Shabbat Shalom.

To learn more about Nadav and Avihu click here. 

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