The priest stands with his two sons, engaged in the act of sacrifice — the aim: to propitiate divine anger and achieve the best possible conditions for his nation. Then, in an astounding act of sudden, celestial judgment, the two sons are brutally slain. The father is devastated.
Why were the sons of Aaron struck down? The Torah tells us, vaguely, that they offered “strange fire” before the Lord. The rabbis have various explanations: They performed acts of unauthorized ritual; they were drunk, they lacked faith in God’s ability to send fire from heaven. These do not seem commensurate to the consequences. God accepts so much more nastiness from the Children of Israel and does it with more patience — don’t the sons of Aaron also merit a bit of forbearance?
And, more strangely, the 18th-century commentator Or HaChayim suggests that far from doing wrongly, Nadab and Abihu were particularly wonderful priests, combining closeness to God and a longing so strong that the fire that consumed them was the fire they themselves brought. Moses himself recognized that they were holier than both he and Aaron.
But what can this all-consuming passion have to do with the issues of kashrut and ritual purity, which concern the bulk of this week’s portion, Shemini? What possible connection can there be between the highest form of loving God and the quotidian drudgery of priestly vestments and advanced butchering?
Perhaps, the answer can be found in the centrality for Judaism of making distinctions, or as the text puts it, “lehavdil bain haTameh uVain haTahor” — to separate between being pure and being impure. It is no coincidence that the phrase uses the same word by which we call the Havdala service that ends the Sabbath, when we set apart the day and the night, the holy and the commonplace. To make proper distinctions there must be a black-and-white clarity. To choose a state of ritual, physical and moral cleanliness over its opposite, we must stay far from the particularly modern belief in equal value for every shade of gray.
Ultimately, we can see this as the essential genius of all the commandments, including kashrut. The goal is not to try and inculcate a set of moral precepts, but to superimpose a painstaking system of abstract measurement upon the vastnesses of life. The thought process is that humans, like Nadab and Abihu, or the worshipers of the Golden Calf, may think they know the right way to live, or worship God, but that is not enough. It is only by living under the enforcement of doing myriad acts that define and mark our time, our bodies and our spirits that we may slowly come to righteousness. At the very least, we may be too tired to do evil.
But the story of Aaron’s two sons brings one more critical message. There are all kinds of laws with which humans struggle and cheat. The Torah is not seeking a grudging acceptance of divine judgment. Aaron’s response to the tragedy is shown as even more important than the death of his sons. He is particularly praised for his silence in the face of his pain, for his delicacy in seeking to continue his priestly ministrations.
The description at the beginning of this column is not the story of Nadab and Abihu — after all, Aaron was not present at the offering of strange fire. Rather, it is the Greek myth of Laocoon, the Trojan priest who didn’t trust the gifts of Greeks, and so Poseidon sent sea serpents to swallow up his sons. Laocoon does not accept the god’s action, and reacts in desperate fury, and some say that he too was dragged down into the wine-dark sea. This is the opposite of Aaron, who, we are told, remained silent and obedient.
Aaron’s lesson is striking. It is the willingness to shackle ourselves to the law and to learn to love the life of distinction-making that will lead us to follow in the path of God. Many of us engage in spiritual quests or raise the pursuit of beauty and individual choice to the level of God-given sanction. We believe that intention is the only valid measure of the righteousness of an act. This mistaken view often leads to dangerous moral solipsism. Rather, it is the less glamorous repetition of daily obligations and well-trod rules that has built the justifiably famous cultural DNA of the Jewish people.
This week’s portion reminds us that we must act in this world, choose purity in this world and act in community in this world, not in the spiritual loneliness of Nadab and Abihu. Their path may be even more beautiful than our own, but it leads to self-consumption. For most of us, it is obedience, openness and acceptance that will bring us to a proud and ethical life.
Jeff Bogursky is an executive in interactive multimedia in New York City.