Shemini 5778

What is Holy?
A D’var Torah for Shemini
Cantor Sandy Horowitz ’14

In response to gun violence incidents, the press often seeks to provide information about the shooter in an attempt to determine motive. Was he a Muslim terrorist or a white disgruntled employee, a bully or bullied, a cop or a criminal, or a known sociopath who slipped through the cracks of law enforcement bureaucracy? All have been true. And no matter who they are, the outcome of their actions remains unquestionably disastrous.

Similarly, with regard to this week’s Torah reading, there are numerous possible explanations for the actions of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu, who bring strange, unsanctioned sacrificial fire to God, and die as a result. In the context of the culture that God is establishing for the ancient Israelites, theirs is a serious transgression.

This disturbing event occurs following a lengthy, detailed description of the sacrifices offered at the newly consecrated altar by Aaron the priest. The description is interspersed several times with the term “as commanded” — asher tziva – and “as prescribed” — ka-mishpat (Leviticus 9: 6, 7, 10, 16, 21), emphasizing the importance of performing the rites in a specific, prescribed manner. God then appears and “A fire came out from before Adonai and consumed…the offering” (Vatetzei eish milifnei Adonai vatokhal…et ha-olah) Lev. 9:24.

Immediately afterwards, Nadav and Avihu step forward and “offered strange fire before Adonai, which God had not commanded them” (vayakrivu lifnei Adonai eish zarah asher lo tziva otam, Lev 10:1). The next verse echoes Leviticus 9:24: “A fire came out from before Adonai and consumed them” (Vatetzei eish milifnei Adonai vatokhal otam) – that is, the two men along with their strange fire.

One of the explanations given for their transgression is that they were drunk, as supported by Leviticus 10:9 following the event when God admonishes Aaron, “do not drink wine nor strong drink, you, nor your sons with you, when you go into the Tent of Meeting lest you die…”.

Or perhaps they are punished for the sin of arrogance, as cited in Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 52a:

Moses and Aaron were walking along, as Nadav and Avihu were behind them, and all of Israel behind them. Nadav said to Avihu, “When these two elders die, you and I will lead this generation.” God said to them “Let’s see who buries whom.”

I’ve been wondering if the meaning of the names of these two kohanim may hint at another explanation. The name Nadav is translated as “donate” or “volunteer” in modern Hebrew; the word “nadav” as used in Exodus 35:29 implies generosity: “Each man and woman whose heart made them willing…” (kol ish v’isha asher nadav libam otam). “Avihu” translates as “He is my father”, possibly referring to God. Might it be that they offered themselves as a willing sacrifice to God, whether from feelings of ecstasy or of unworthiness?

We can only hypothesize as to their character and motive, and perhaps we remain uncomfortable with the entire incident. The Torah narrative, however, is clear: by contrast with Aaron’s sacred offerings, Nadav and Avihu’s strange fire was unholy, as we read following the event, “That you may differentiate between holy and unholy…”(ul’havdil bein hakodesh uvein hahol, Lev. 10:10).

Can the incident with Nadav and Avihu, and more specifically the commandment which follows, to differentiate between holy and unholy, help us navigate the fiery arguments on both sides of the issue of gun control today?

An article recently appeared in The New York Times Magazine entitled, “Gun Culture is My Culture and I Fear For What it Has Become”, by David Joy (April 2, 2018). . This is an important read for anyone who has never owned a gun or perhaps even held one, for anyone unfamiliar with the culture of gun owners who stand by their right to retain their lifestyle, and who fear that gun control will destroy that lifestyle.

Aaron’s carefully prepared sacrificial fire was holy, his sons’ strange fire was not, although perhaps the sons thought it was. As we strive to separate the holy from the unholy in our own time, we recognize that our country consists of multiple cultures with different and sometimes conflicting views of each. What is holy? The use of a gun by the subsistence dweller to hunt food? Surely. The passing from one generation to the next generation a time-honored tradition of peaceful gun use and ownership? Perhaps. Using a gun to defend oneself or to save someone else’s life? It depends… May our study of Torah continue to inspire us in our struggle to understand that which eludes our understanding, and may we work together to save lives.

Sandy Horowitz is the Cantor/Educator of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ. She received ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in 2014.