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Seeking Center    

by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman 



The parasha of Sh'mini begins with the 'Grand Opening' of the Tabernacle. Aaron and his sons have been properly garbed and consecrated for their task of serving as priests. Aaron offers the very first sacrifices ever upon the Tabernacle altar, and to the astonishment of all those gathered, God responds by sending forth a fire that consumes the offering on the altar. "Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering."(Lev. 9:24) The people are overwhelmed. The text relates "all the people saw and shouted and fell on their faces." (Lev. 9:24) The sacrificial relationship between the people and God, instructed, designed and carried out meticulously has been consummated. One might see this event as a second peak spiritual experience for the people after Sinai.


Immediately after this event, the lens of Torah zooms in on Nadav and Avihu, Aaron's sons and newly minted priests. Each takes some incense and places it in their pans and "offers before the Lord an alien fire, which God had not commanded them to do." (Lev. 10:1) The text continues in language parallel to the earlier sacrifices, stating "Fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died before the Lord" (Lev. 10:2) Many commentators have interpreted their death as a punishment for not obeying the rules. Some blame them for bringing "an alien fire, not commanded by God." Others interpret this event as Aaron's punishment for participating in the incident of the Golden Calf. Such interpretations present major theological difficulties, presenting God as a rigid, merciless, and vengeful deity.


The language used to describe this event however, says nothing of punishment. In fact, the parallel language used to describe both instances of offerings being accepted by God, speaks to a parallel process. Moses' own comments to Aaron at the time do not reflect a punitive outlook. Rather, he tries to comfort his brother by saying, " This is what the Lord meant when he said 'through those near to Me, I show Myself holy..."(Lev.10:3)


Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar ( a 17th-18th c. scholar from Morocco) writes similarly about this event in his Torah commentary, the Ohr Hachaim:

(Theirs was) a death by Divine kiss like that experienced by the perfectly righteous- it is only that the righteous die when the Divine kiss approaches them, while they died by approaching it... Although they sensed their own demise, this did not prevent them from drawing near (to God) in attachment, delight, delectability, fellowship, love, kiss, and sweetness to the point that their souls ceased from them.


Ohr Hachaim suggests that Nadav (whose name means free-will offering) and Avihu were spiritually intoxicated with desire for God. Their passion for God led them to cross certain boundaries from which they could not return. Their deaths are not a punishment but rather the natural consequences of their actions. They are met with the same response as the first sacrifices in the Tabernacle. The same fire issued forth, receiving their complete offering. One senses that they did not understand the nature of the spiritual fire with which they were dealing. It is as if, intoxicated by the presence of God, they crave more spiritual intensity, crossing dangerous boundaries, resulting in a spiritual and physical overdose.


I am reminded of the story of Christopher McCandless, portrayed in the film, "Into the Wild." He too craved an intensity and purity of spiritual and physical experience that lead him to a remote area of Alaska for an extended winter solo camping experience. Not realizing that he had gone too far into the wilderness, without adequate food supplies and unable to return across the rushing springtime river he had crossed in the autumn, this young intelligent passionate man starved to death in the wilderness. Each of these stories reveal a youthful zeal for intense spiritual connection that leads to tragic outcome.  


 Immediately following the episode of Nadav and Avihu, Torah cites an admonition against consuming alchohol before entering the Tabernacle, lest one die (Lev. 10:9). A later midrashic work, Leviticus Rabba explains this admonition in connection with the story of Nadav and Avihu:

"So it was that wine separated Aaron and his sons, for death. According to R. Shimon, the sons of Aaron died only because they entered the tent of meeting intoxicated with wine."


Both physical and spiritual intoxication create dis-inhibition, which can open the heart and allow for a deeper sense of connection with spiritual reality, but can also lead to dangerous and sometimes lethal outcomes. We have all experienced the tragic loss of  youth in our communities; youth with bright futures who impulsively made choices born of passion or intoxication that lead to their deaths. It is incumbent upon us as a community to consider the nature of the unquenched thirst that often drives our youth to extreme situations.  


One might argue that this parasha is entirely concerned with human desire, both spiritual and physical. Following the story of Nadav and Avihu, the remainder of the Torah portion shifts to the laws of kashrut, the rules for proper consumption of animals. The laws of kashrut require one to establish personal boundaries regarding consumption. Unbounded spiritual desire can lead to self- destruction and at its worst, to dangerous zealotry that destroys others and community. Similarly, unbounded physical consumption leads to personal self-destruction and on a communal level to environmental and global devastation.


The Torah appears to suggest a middle path, in ancient terms but with contemporary resonance. Judaism has always advocated walking this path. Maimonides, in his work the Mishna Torah (Hilchot Daot), describes the nature of human beings regarding specific character traits. Some people may have an excess of certain traits such as humility on the one hand or pride on the other, greed or self-satisfaction, anger or equanimity etc.... In line with earlier sages, he cautions against extremes of temperament and advocates the development of balance in personality.    


The middle path eschews extremes, embraces balance, and requires discipline and commitment. Lao Tzu wrote these words in the 6th century BCE:

Centeredness is the cure for impulsiveness. Serenity is the master of impulsiveness. Knowing this, one of universal nature is placid  and never departs from the center of his own being. Though he may move about all day, he never loses his poise. Though he may be surrounded by splendour and comfort, he is always dispassionate and undistracted. For one with great responsibility to conduct himself lightly is perilous. In frivolity, one's root is lost. In restlessness, one's self-mastery could go with the wind! 


May we all strive to find and embrace the middle path for ourselves, for our families and our communities. It is the path of tikkun and ultimately, it leads us all to peace.



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