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Parshat Shmini begins with the conclusion of the ceremonies that dedicate the Mishkan. Moshe passes on priestly responsibilities to his brother, Aharon, and his four sons, Elazar, Itamar, Nadav, and Avihu. But as these ceremonies draw to a close, things do not go as planned.
וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי־אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ קְטֹרֶת וַיַּקְרִבוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם׃
Now Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the LORD strange fire, which He had not enjoined upon them.
וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם וַיָּמֻתוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה׃
And fire came forth from the LORD and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the LORD.
Two of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring incense which they have not been instructed to bring as part of the elaborate dedication rituals or as part of the regular service in the Mishkan; they offer “strange fire,” and then are consumed by fire.
Traditional commentators offer a range of interpretations of what exactly caused Nadav and Avihu to meet their fiery end — what made this fire they offered so “strange?” Interpretations include that the two brothers had not been respecting the religious authority of their uncle Moshe, that they had refused to marry and have children, that they entered the Mishkan without washing their hands and feet properly, and that they served in the Mishkan while drunk.
This ambiguity about the cause of Nadav and Avihu’s deaths might be troubling to a reader, but I imagine it would have affected every act of service their surviving brothers, Elazar and Itamar, performed in the Mishkan. As they took on these new priestly roles, did they enter the Tabernacle each day shaking with fear, worrying that they would forget to wash their hands and be scorched on the spot? Did the lack of clarity on what caused their brothers’ end follow them around the Mishkan, a ghostly presence as they slaughtered animals, lit lamps, and — most of all — burned incense? Were they afraid every day they spent in God’s holy sanctuary?
The Kli Yakar points out that all the explanations offered for Nadav and Avihu’s misstep ignore that the pasuk itself seems to tell us what caused them to be punished with divine fire: they offered strange fire. That alone was the sin.
But if that alone was the sin, offering incense that had not been commanded, what’s so bad about that? Isn’t the desire to draw near to God by burning incense in the newly-inaugurated Mishkan praiseworthy, not deserving of censure?
Nechama Leibowitz, citing and elaborating on previous commentaries, offers an account of the nature of their misdeed. She writes:
Evidently, Nadav and Avihu did not offend against any ritual precepts but sinned by reaching for God through the dictates of their own hearts rather than through the path set by God. Submission to the yoke of Heaven — the ultimate aim of the Torah — was here supplanted by unbridled religious ecstasy. Hence their punishment.
It is neither through momentary passion nor even through self-sacrifice that the religious goal is attained but rather through the discipline spelled out in the precepts of the Torah. Many consider such submission to the commandments, as against spontaneous worship stimulated by personal and subjective sentiments, as mechanical and objectionable. Yet…it was precisely the unrestrained desire to ascend to forbidden heights that constituted an unpardonable sin.
Leibowitz’s account of Nadav and Avihu’s sin, that they erred in following their hearts and their passion to serve God rather than following God’s rules, is one that I was taught growing up in day school growing up. It also is deeply evocative of the writing of her brother, the theologian Yeshayahu Leibowitz. I have long been deeply moved by Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s writing, his insistence that we serve God by doing what God asks of us and not what makes us subjectively feel good. But in reading Nechama’s analysis of this sin, I was taken aback.
The story of Nadav and Avihu’s inappropriate passion, the need to constrain worship to only that which God asks for and permits, was one of the stories used to justify my exclusion from the holy, which I learned in the schools which taught me to love Torah and mitzvot. It was all well and good to love Torah, but a passion that would demand “extralegal” ritual performance beyond what I was commanded as a woman — leading tefillah, wearing tefillin — was dangerous. God hated when people engaged in worship they were not commanded to do, so much so that God would scorch them where they stood.
Perhaps that is part of the reason why I loved — and still do love — Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s theology as I began to practice in a fully egalitarian way. I wasn’t doing this because I was passionate, or, God forbid, just because I wanted to. I was laying tefillin because I was halakhically obligated to. This was not some overflowing of sentiment; it was, as Nechama put it, my fulfillment of “the discipline spelled out in the precepts of the Torah.”
Do you think that’s how Elazar and Itamar felt, serving in the Mishkan? Did they try to quash all emotionality as they fulfilled the sacred rites of the Mishkan? Did their own fear serve as enough of a check on any outpouring of awe or of love? Did they dip their fingers in the blood of korbanot and tell themselves “I’m doing this because God commands it?”
One interpretation that the Kli Yakar offers echoes this anxiety. After stating that it is obvious from the pasuk what Nadav and Avihu’s sin was, he goes through each of the other less-obvious reasons and explains why they are textually-rooted after all.
ודעת האומר שלא היו רחוצי ידים ורגלים, סובר שהיינו אש זרה לפי שלא קדשו ידיהם ורגליהם מן הכיור היו חולין במקום קודש וע”כ נקרא האש אש זרה כי הזרות הפך הקדושה כמ”ש (ויקרא כב י) וכל זר לא יאכל קודש, לכך נאמר איש מחתתו. כאילו היתה מחתה שלו שאין בה צד קדושה וכל זה מצד שלא קדשו ידיהם ורגליהם, ועל שחטאו במים ע”כ נדונו באש השולט במקום שאין מים מצויין לכבותו.
And that which you say that they did not wash their hands and feet, it makes sense that there was a strange fire, since as they did not sanctify their hands and feet from the basin, they were mundane in a sacred place. And therefore this fire is called a strange fire, since the strangeness reverses the sanctity, as is written, “and any stranger [non-priest] shall not eat the holy [sacrifices],” therefore it says “each man took his fire-pan.” Since it was his own fire-pan, which didn’t have a holy aspect, and all of this was since they didn’t sanctify their hands and feet, and since they sinned with water, therefore they were judged by fire, which dominates in a place where there is no water found to extinguish it.
(on Vayikra 10:1)
The Kli Yakar explains that according to the interpretation that Nadav and Avihu’s sin was a failure to wash their hands and feet, the essence of the problem was that they brought mundanity into the holiness of the Sanctuary. Their messy lives came into the untouchable holy space. This interpretation suggests that a person must cleanse themselves before engaging with the holy, that our “own fire-pans” do not belong there.
But the story of Nadav and Avihu is not the only thing in Parshat Shmini. Much of the parsha, after this event and further instructions about the Mishkan, is taken up with the rules of kashrut. Pasuk after pasuk lists the rules of which animals are permitted: split hooves, fish with fins and scales, only certain birds. What does this have to do with the preceding narrative?
Tamar Kamionkowski, writing in Torah Queeries, argues that these kashrut laws follow the story of Nadav and Avihu to further emphasize the importance of boundaries. She says:
As the parasha proceeds in great detail with lists and categories, with prohibition after prohibition, the acts of passion by Nadav and Avihu are lost, and the importance of maintaining clear boundaries with regard to flesh emerges victorious.
A queer reading, one that engages the text by focusing on culturally imposed boundaries and categories and the advantages and disadvantages of transgressing those boundaries, helps us to see that it is not happenstance that the dietary laws follow the story of Nadav and Avihu. Like the swing of a pendulum, the dietary laws are the response, the text’s way of imposing further restrictions and categories in a world in which people believed that chaos and death could ensue if there were not rigid classifications.
For Kamionkowski, the laws of kashrut are listed in Shmini to further reify the importance of boundaries and the dangers of passion. But a creative reading of the Kli Yakar can offer a different meaning to the juxtaposition of Nadav and Avihu’s deaths and the lists of permitted and forbidden animals.
The Kli Yakar argues that by failing to wash their hands, Nadav and Avihu “היו חולין במקום קודש,” “they were mundane in a sacred place.” But the same word he uses for “mundane,” “חולין,” is the name of the Talmud tractate that details the laws of kashrut. It is called “Chullin” because it appears in the order of Kodashim, Holy Things, where all the other tractates deal with the sacred laws of the Temple. Kashrut is mundane, for everyone.
After Nadav and Avihu are burnt up for bringing too much of themselves, their passion, their firepans, their unsanctified bodies, into the Mishkan, the parsha dwells on “chullin.” These mundane animals, their bodies which are simply for our food, occupy substantial real estate in the parsha. The mitzvah of kashrut is all about this mundanity. It takes places outside of the Mishkan, inside our homes and our bodies. Nadav and Avihu might have been punished for bringing chullin into the kodesh, but we are then exhorted to engage with chullin to become kodesh.
Kashrut is a way of bringing the holy into our lives, of orienting our very sustenance towards God’s will. Nadav and Avihu bring their messy lives into the Mishkan; kashrut is about bringing the Mishkan into our messy lives. That is where it belongs. Chullin is important.
What Parshat Shmini teaches us is that while we are asked to adhere to God’s will, it is also God’s will that God be in our lives, as we go about our days. God is in the Mishkan, where we might feel terror to enter, but God also wants to be with us as we sustain our unsanctified bodies. God wants to be part of our lives, not to engage with us only when we divest ourselves of everything we bring with us to the Sanctuary. We do not need to wash the mundane off of our hands to engage with God.
We do not need to have no passion to deserve the sacred.