Parshat Shemini: Leviticus 9:1-11:47; II Samuel 6:1-7:17.
What a terrible tragedy. Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s two sons, have just perished in the presence of their father, Aaron. At what should have been the high point of their careers, these two young men were killed by a heavenly flame as they brought an unsanctioned firepan of incense into the confines of the Tabernacle.
Why did this terrible event happen? Some people say they were drunk, having partied all night in anticipation of the consecration of the Tent of Meeting. Others say that they were trying to usurp their father’s position. Perhaps the true answer is that they did not follow the ritual directions in the prescribed fashion. The results were disastrous.
One of the basic principles we learn in the stories of the Torah is that as much as God reaches out to humans and as much as people desire God’s intimacy, actual contact will be disastrous. God tells Moses when he asks to “know him” that no person can truly experience God and live. God destroys the construction of the early descendants of Noah who tried to build a tower with its head in the heavens. The Israelites are told that they can only approach Mount Sinai if they are properly sanctified; otherwise they will die. Proximity without preparation is fatal.
Keeping this principle in mind, let us look at the Book of Leviticus, Vayikra. It can be seen as an operations manual of the priests, the kohanim. It informs the kohanim who are learning about sacrifices, the laws of tumah and tohorah (two terms that are difficult to translate relating to the physical readiness to carry out rituals), holiness and holidays. The kohanim are reminded over and over again that they must perform their duties exactly as directed by God. There is no room for deviation.
Nadav and Avihu had heard these instructions. They knew that absolute adherence to the rules was essential. Yet they seemed to have forgotten what they had been taught and, as a result, they lost their lives. Some tragedies are unavoidable if one does not follow the approved directives.
If a worker on a construction site does not follow mandated safety protocols, a terrible accident may happen. If medical guidelines are not followed during a pandemic, sickness and even death may follow.
The story of Nadav and Avihu is one of the few narratives in Vayikra. Many would rather it be excised from the text. But this selection teaches an important message: No one, not even the most esteemed and privileged, can escape the consequences of ill-conceived actions.
Rabbi Mitch Parker is the rabbi at B’nai Israel Synagogue in West Bloomfield.