Shemini: Strange Fire

April 13, 2011 at 6:53 pm | Posted in Shemini | 1 Comment

(This blog was first posted on April 14, 2010.)

And Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aharon, each took his incense pan, and they put fire in them, and they put incense upon it.  Then they brought near before God strange fire, that he had not commanded them.  A fire went forth from before God, and it consumed them, and they died in front of God.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 10:1-2)

Nadav = generous one, spontaneous giver

Avihu = my father is he

The mishkan (the Israelites’ portable sanctuary, a dwelling-place for God) has finally been assembled.  Moses has carried out an elaborate ritual to make his brother Aaron and Aaron’s four sons priests.  These first five priests of Israel have spent seven days in the middle courtyard of the sanctuary, in front of the curtained entrance to the Holy of Holies.

This week’s Torah portion, Shemini (Eighth) begins on the eighth day, when Moses summons Aaron and his sons, and has the elders bring forward the first sacrifices to be made on the new altar by the new priests.  Moses announces that after these sacrifices, the glory of God will appear to everyone.

Aaron performs the series of sacrifices, and his four sons assist him.  Aaron blesses the people.  Then  Moses takes Aaron into the Tent of Meeting, the Holy of Holies.  When they emerge again, they bless the people together.  Then the glory of God appears, and “a fire went forth from before God, and it consumed” the animal parts on the altar.  Presumably the fire comes from the Holy of Holies, and miraculously travels through the curtains and the middle courtyard without burning anything, before consuming the sacrifices in a blaze of glory. The people shout with joy and fall on their faces.

In the midst of the rejoicing, Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, pick up their incense pans.  Nobody has instructed them to do so; each one is moved by his own impulse.  They put fire, in this case glowing embers, in their pans, and add incense.  Then they bring “strange fire” before God.  And “a fire went forth from before God, and it consumed them.”  The Torah even uses the same Hebrew words for both occasions of divine fire.

What happened?  The commentary offers too many different theories to list them all in this blog.  Here’s what I think happened.

Nadav and Avihu acted on impulse instead of asking for instructions—even though Moses has issued warnings that the whole sanctuary is a dangerous place where the priests risk death unless they follow instructions meticulously.  They probably took their incense pans all the way into the Holy of Holies—and later the Torah says that although Moses goes in to speak with God, no one else may enter that innermost chamber except the high priest, once a year.  Nadav and Avihu bring their “strange fire” into the holiest place as an act of worship.  But their impulsive violation means death.

Both Nadav and Avihu (unlike their two younger brothers, who stick to the instructions and live) have already beheld God’s feet on a pavement of sapphire (Exodus 24:10) halfway up Mount Sinai.  After an experience like that, it’s hard to go back to just seeing the usual pillar of cloud and fire.  They’re both hungry for more contact with God.

They see that when Aaron finishes the sacrifices and blesses the people from the altar, no manifestation of God occurs.  But after Moses takes Aaron into the Tent of Meeting, the Holy of Holies, the miraculous fire of God comes forth and lands on the altar.

Clearly the way to bring about an encounter with God is to enter the Holy of Holies.

Nadav, whose name means a generous or spontaneous giver, decides to give himself as a nedavah, a spontaneous gift to God.  He is willing, even eager, to let his own ego go up in smoke in order to be united with God.  He picks up his incense pan.

Avihu, whose name means “he is my father”, is also carried away with the ecstasy of the moment.  He sees his brother heading toward the innermost chamber with an incense pan, and he grabs his own pan.  He doesn’t stop to think that he’s risking his life.  He’s like his father, Aaron, who made the golden calf when the people asked for an idol, without thinking through the consequences.  (The traditional explanation of Avihu’s name is that God is like a father to him, but I think the evidence points to Avihu’s actual father.)  Now as Avihu wants to encounter God in the Holy of Holies, the way his father Aaron just did.

Although the two brothers act from different impulses, they both bring “strange fire” before God.  Symbolically, this fire is their passion: Nadav’s burning desire to give himself to God, and Avihu’s burning desire to experience more divine ecstasy.  Their consuming desires are met with a consuming fire from God.

Aaron’s two younger brothers, Elazar and Itamar, stick to doing the job God has given them.  They are rewarded with long lives and many descendants who also serve as priests.

Is it better to die in an ecstasy of worship, hurtling your soul into the unknown?  Or is it better to keep your feet on the ground and pay attention to the demands of this world, even as you keep your sense of awe?

I believe we are all in this world for a reason, with a job to do, even if we don’t know what it is.  I’d rather be like Elazar and Itamar, and hope for a long life of service in this world, doing my work as well and as carefully I can.  (But I’m glad I wasn’t given the work of a priest!)



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  1. […] In this week’s portion, Shemini (Eighth), Aaron and his four sons complete the eighth day of their ordination as priests by presenting an animal offering at the new altar.  God sends forth a miraculous fire that consumes everything on the altar, and all the people shout with joy and bow down to the ground. Then Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring unauthorized incense into the Tent of Meeting, and God sends forth a miraculous fire that consumes them.  (See my earlier post, Shemini: Strange Fire.) […]

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