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Parshat Shemini: Leviticus 9:11-11:47; Ezekiel 36:16-38. (Shabbat Parah)

By Rabbi Jennifer Lader

In this week’s Torah portion, Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s eldest sons, are killed in a Divine fiery blaze after offering an esh zarah, a “strange fire before the Lord.”

While commentators across the board argue about what exactly Nadav and Avihu did to deserve such a quick and violent death, the majority of them agree that Aaron’s sons performed unauthorized and innovative acts of ritual. No matter what the two men actually did wrong, it’s clear they did something that wasn’t expressly spelled out by the rites that were previously in place.

This interpretation poses a particular problem for liberal Jews, who innovate, flex, redefine and grow based on the ever-changing needs of our congregants in an ever-changing world. As a movement that aims to keep our spirituality and ritual original and inventive, we are faced with a biblical narrative that seemingly punishes two priests, appointed by God, for doing just that.

Orthodox Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch takes this narrative as a direct Divine message against the liberal movements of Judaism. He writes, “We can understand that the death of the priestly youths is the most solemn warning for all future priests! Not by fresh inventions, even of God-serving novices, but by carrying out that which is ordained by God has the Jewish priest to establish the authenticity of his activities.”

However, Nadav and Avihu’s story cannot simply be intended as an allegorical warning against liturgical innovation, as Hirsch argues. Judaism is an evolving faith, which has played a huge role in its historical longevity. Jews have been revising and modifying ritual since ritual was around for us to amend. Had Judaism been unable to work within a creative framework, the entire religion would have been lost with the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash. By modifying our religious practice into a community-oriented mobile religion, we survived.

So, if we reject the idea that innovation is seen as a sin against God, where does that leave us with the sudden demise of Nadav and Avihu?

Directly after their deaths, God instructs Aaron as follows: “Do not drink wine or strong drink, you and your sons with you, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, lest you die.” (Leviticus 10:9-11).

From this juxtaposition of verses, Rashi infers that Nadav and Avihu were, in fact, guilty of an SUI, sacrifice under the influence. This transgression warranted a swift punishment from above, not because of any malicious intent, but because these men were chosen as leaders and role models of their community. They were so infatuated with their newfound power that they took advantage of their situation, pushing ethical boundaries with no fear of consequence.

In the words of a true scholar of our time, Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility.” We have the right to expect the spiritual leaders of our community to be mentshen. Because without honoring the ethical foundation of our tradition, all of our hard work keeping Judaism fresh and relevant in today’s world goes to waste.

Rabbi Jennifer Lader is a rabbi at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield.