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Torah Commentary
Sh’mini (April 7, 2018)

Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire on it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.” And Aaron was silent. — Leviticus 10:1-3

Bettijane Eisenpreis

This passage is not only puzzling to modern eyes, but it was to past generations as well. Obviously, Nadab and Abihu did something wrong. But what exactly? The fire that they offered was “alien” (some translations say “strange”). It differed from other fire principally in that “He had not enjoined (it) upon them.” In other words, they didn’t have God’s permission.

Nadab and Abihu were Aaron’s two oldest sons, but how old were they? In past times, and certainly in the Bible, people were defined as adults much earlier than they are now. Our bar mitzvah ritual is a reminder that boys were once considered men at 13. This prank looks like the kind of thing two teenagers would do. Their father had just offered a proper sacrifice in the new Tabernacle, and the boys decided to imitate him and offer their own sacrifice. They came from a priestly family and were in line for the priesthood. How could a little sacrifice practice hurt?

The answer is clear: Offering a sacrifice without authorization was a mortal sin, and they were immediately punished for it. But exactly how “strange” or “alien” (Everett Fox translates it as “outside”) was the fire? What is clear is that offering a sacrifice in the Tabernacle is fine if God says so and lethal if God does not. This is not unusual in the Bible. The Children of Israel are just that — children. They may be adults chronologically, but after generations of slavery, they have to learn how to act as grown-ups. At this stage of their development, they must learn how to listen to authority. It will be a long time until they can think for themselves.

Still, there are times when God’s punishment seems unnecessarily harsh. I believe that the final plague God visited on the Egyptians — the death of the firstborn — seems unjust. Why did the child of the slave girl have to die? And here, when God says, “Through those near to Me I show myself holy, And gain glory before all the people,” Aaron is silent.

Aaron remains silent when his sons’ bodies are carried outside the camp. He follows Moses’ instructions to the letter — not rending his clothes in mourning for his sons and continuing the rituals appropriate for his inauguration as High Priest. He and his two remaining sons are instructed to offer the meal offering and to consume it in the Tent of Meeting. They are told they can eat the gift offering in any clean place. However, when Moses learns that the goat for the sin offering has already been burned and that Aaron and his sons did not eat any of it, he scolds Aaron for not having eaten it in the sanctuary.

Finally, Aaron speaks. “See, this day they brought their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord and such things have befallen me! Had I eaten sin offering today, would the Lord have approved?” he asks Moses.

Moses gets the point immediately. Aaron is the High Priest, but he is also a father who has just lost two of his sons. Enough is enough! When it comes to eating the sin offering, he has lost his appetite. And Moses approves. The people in the Bible are not saints; they are real people. That’s why the Torah has survived for thousands of years and why it is relevant today.

Bettijane Eisenpreis, a freelance writer, is a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El
and a regular participant in our Saturday morning Torah study group.

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