“And you must teach the Israelites all the laws
which the Lord has imparted to them through Moses.” (Leviticus 10:11)
Parashat Sh’mini is a bit of a shocker. After seven days of intense spiritual preparation, the kohanim (priests) begin to offer sacrifices on the newly consecrated altar in the mishkan (Tabernacle). When Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, offer theirs, they are incinerated (Lev. 10:2). A moment of joy becomes a moment of grief.
While rabbinic commentators speculate about the sin responsible for their punishment, the text is explicit: “…they offered alien fire, which God had not enjoined upon them.” (Lev. 10:1) Despite God’s numerous and detailed commands Nadav and Avihu take it upon themselves to be spontaneous and creative and improvise their ritual. This episode stands in contrast to Moses’ shattering the Ten Commandments, also a spontaneous, creative, and improvised act. Moses isn’t punished, though. Sh’mini is even more shocking if you know one reason God gives the Torah to the Israelites is, “They are impetuous.” (Babylonian Talmud Beitzah 25b) So, is spontaneity good or bad?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (1948- ; former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth) answers,”It depends.” Moses represents the prophetic tradition, which serves God by being flexible to adapt to the needs of changing times. Nadav and Avihu represent the priestly tradition, which serves God by being constant, regardless. The priests’ words are always the same; the prophets’ words are always different (Babylonian Talmud 89a). Nadav and Avihu’s mistake was to behave like prophets instead of like priests.
These two traditions are necessary to live in the world. Order, structure, and boundaries bring continuity. Challenge, disruption, and fluidity bring new life. The trick is to find the proper balance.
Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom