Proximity to holiness requires utmost caution

These limitations will at times mandate distance from God’s presence, which ultimately should create yearning for the states of purity.

NADAB AND ABIHU die before the Lord (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
NADAB AND ABIHU die before the Lord
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
This week’s Torah portion presents the shocking death of Nadab and Abihu. God consumes the two sons of Aaron as He consumed the burnt offerings given on the eighth day. Rashi explains that the same fire that consumed the burnt offerings and fat parts on the outer altar started in the Holy of Holies to burn the incense and consumed Nadab and Abihu before traveling to the outer altar to consume the offerings.
Many explanations have been given – both critical and non-critical – as to why the two died. It is the midrashic explanation of the Sifra on Shmini that I feel most beautifully explains the story.
“That they in their joy, since they saw a new fire, came to heap love upon love.”
The commentary known as the Biur elaborates.
“Nadab and Abihu were towering personalities; they certainly did not maliciously transgress the word of the Lord. But in their superabundant joy, they lost their judgment and entered the Holy of Holies to burn fine incense although this was not commanded by Moses.”
Nadab and Abihu unfortunately deviated from the strict protocol determined by God that they had been following on the previous eight days. The response is harsh and immediate: They become the burnt offerings.
Says Ibn Ezra: “They died before the Lord because they thought they were doing something desirable before him.”
While their death is tragic, it is not as punitive as other punishments by death, because they become sacrifices accepted by God. They die before God, not distanced from Him. What we learn from this story is that intentions alone are not enough. There has to be strict adherence to the protocol of law, particularly in the context of the world of sacrifices.
The sons of Aaron may not have understood the consequences of deviating from protocol. But upon their deaths, Aharon and the children of Israel learned a fundamental lesson: proximity to holiness requires utmost caution.
To quote Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on Leviticus 10:1-3: “There is no room for subjective discretion in any part of the sacrificial service in the Sanctuary. Precise limits and forms are prescribed which must be strictly adhered to, even for the free-will offerings. The closeness of and approach of God, which we seek with every offering, may only be found through obedience to and acceptance of God’s will. This is one of the points on which Judaism and paganism are diametrically opposed. The latter uses the offering as a means to achieving the divinity’s aid to fulfill one’s wishes. The Jewish offering means to place the one bringing the offering at God’s service… self-devised sacrifices would destroy the truth which is meant to achieve man’s submission… and would mean the glorification of arbitrary subjectivity.”
The world of sacrifices can quickly become a place of anarchy in which subjective desires and individual spiritual ecstasy can randomly override the institution, usurping any pretense of submission to the demands of one God.
For this reason, perhaps, the Torah takes a break of five chapters before returning to the consequences of the deaths of Nadab and Abihu – in Chapter 16 in the portion called Aharei Mot (After the Deaths). In these intervening chapters, the Torah presents a structure of purity and impurity that spans five chapters and regulates the ability of men and women to come before God’s presence in the Tabernacle.
Rabbi Chanoch Waxman in “On Death and Defilement,” published by the Virtual Beit Midrash, explains the reason for these six chapters being inserted here.
“The common denominator of Chapters 11 through 15, the laws of purity and impurity, consists not just of the categories of purity and impurity, but also the need to separate between the impure and the holy. Whether in the context of the Sanctuary itself, the camp within which it resides or the people within whose camp God resides, holiness demands special care and particular conditions for encountering and preserving it.”
I would like to suggest that the strict barriers put up between impurity and holiness mean that humans will invariably throughout their lives be barred from approaching God’s presence in the holiest of places simply because of their physical conditions, regardless of their spiritual aspirations. We will not be able to heap “love upon love” at random when the urge to bring a sacrifice or eat sacrificial food overtakes us. We will have to first acknowledge our human condition, evaluate our state of purity or impurity, before proceeding onward. I would like to suggest that this process can strengthen our yearning for a connection to the Godliness manifested in the Tabernacle just as the structure of sin and repentance creates a yearning to reconcile with God after one distances oneself spiritually through defiance and sin.
In the Tabernacle, the nation of Israel in its entirety – man, woman, child, Priest, Levite, Israelite – will spend their lives, until the Second Temple is destroyed, being aware of the limitations presented by their physical, human bodies in the context of ritual purity and impurity.
These limitations will at times mandate distance from God’s presence, which ultimately should create yearning for the states of purity that will allow a re-engagement with the Divine through sacrifice.
While the world of sacrifices is no longer in existence, I would like to suggest that there is a greater underlying message. At times of spiritual exploration or growth, we might ignore the physical manifestations of our human condition. Judaism fully endorses integrating the physical and the spiritual in our total relationship with God. The Torah, in its presentation of the laws of purity and impurity that involve solely our physical bodies, forces us to recognize that in addition to the soul, the body is an active participant in our relationship with God, both in distancing us, but more significantly, in ultimately enabling us to also reconnect.
The writer teaches contemporary Halacha at the Matan Advanced Talmud Institute. She also teaches Talmud at Pardes along with courses on Sexuality and Sanctity in the Jewish tradition.