Parshat Shmini 2019
Mark Twain said, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” Most of us survived our own adolescence and that of our children and are very happy it is behind us. That period of rebellion, of raging hormones, of non-acceptance of our parents’ experience-based knowledge was difficult.
Is it possible that hidden in the tragic event related in today’s parsha is a covert story of generation gap and rebellion against authority? Rabbi Shimon Felix thinks so.
As a reminder, we are on the eighth day, the day after the Tabernacle inauguration ceremonies have ended. After Aharon’s sacrifice has been accepted by God, to the joy of the people, and Aharon, it happens. Two of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring a “foreign fire” to the altar. What is this foreign fire? We have no idea. The commentators guess anything from the young men being drunk to their simply bringing a sacrifice that they were not supposed to, or bringing it not according to the protocols we read in the two preceding parshot.
A moment of joy and jubilation becomes one of mourning. The whole situation is ambiguous, both in terms of Moshe’s attempts to express his condolences and Aharon’s response (he is totally silent). After presenting many of the usual commentaries, Rabbi Shimon Felix offers this thought.
Basing himself only on the text, without any midrash to add details not stated in the Torah and without seeking extenuating circumstances to explain what happened, he raises the possibility that this tragedy was the result of a generation gap and of different ideas of what the service in the Mishkan should be.
We are told that Nadav and Avihu each brought his own censor and incense to the altar. Just as fire came down from heaven and burned Aharon’s sacrifice in the preceding paragraph, indicating its acceptance, fire came down from heaven again – and burned Nadav and Avihu to cinders as they carried their “foreign fire” to the altar.
According to Rabbi Felix, the question here is not whether they were holy or sinners. They did something wrong. And from the description we see that their mistake was in not following the protocols. Why didn’t they? Perhaps, he posits, in their exuberance they wanted to make the ceremony more spontaneous, more lively, more personal.
But the problem was – the Mishkan with all its accoutrements was not a place for spontaneity. Last week Mordechai read in excruciating detail how each sacrifice was to be brought, how it was to be burnt, how it was to be eaten. Nothing but nothing was left to chance, no spontaneity required or allowed.
For Moshe and Aharon this was an accepted way of life. They had extensive experience with God and knew that He wanted exactly what He wanted, no alternatives, no replacements, no spontaneous outbursts, no foreign fires. Nadav and Avihu thought that the service should give greater expression to the people’s feelings. So they were wrong.
The bible provides support for this strictness about holy things, where mishandling – or even just handling – the Holy Ark led to severe consequences. For example, in the Book of Samuel II, when David was having the Ark brought to Jerusalem, the wagon it was on seemed about to overturn and a man named Uzah tried to prevent the Ark from toppling over. He touched the Ark to save it – and was struck dead. One of several cases.
We don’t have the Mishkan or the Holy Ark that can’t be touched today, and I venture that it’s a good thing, or we might see a lot of accidents happening. In our alternative – prayers in the synagogue instead of sacrifices in the Temple – we have seen many changes. For example, the Baal Shem Tov introduced spontaneity into synagogue services – with singing and dancing instead of just somber prayers. This led to the mitnagdim – the disestablishmentarians who were against those who were against the establishment. Keep things as they were.
Changes to our services are not comparable to the action of Nadav and Avihu. For one thing, the sacrifices were ordained by God and set down in great detail in the Torah. Our prayers, in contrast, are a substitute that have changed and developed over the years, and despite intense efforts by certain religious elements, they will continue to develop with no divine punishment.
At the same time, the story of Nadav and Avihu underscores the dilemma of parents. On the one hand, children need freedom to be creative, spontaneous, even rebellious. But at the same time they have to be taught values, to respect others’ rights and beliefs, and to refrain from certain acts, whether it be touching very hot surfaces or perverting actions that others deem important.
In a society that seems intent on erasing as many demarcations as possible, this is difficult. If we and our children can encourage spontaneity and creativity while still teaching our young ones essential values, then we have done our job.