My son got his driver’s permit this week. Naturally, he’s very excited and nervous; so am I. I’m also thinking about another couple of sons, Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron the High Priest. This week’s parasha is Shemini, one of the few narratives in the how-to manual that is Leviticus. Aaron, Moses’ older brother, has been ordained as High Priest of the Israelites, along with his four sons. It was a fairly ornate ceremony, involving all sorts of sacrificial offerings and new clothes. There is a new dynamic unfolding here, one that sets up the relationship between God, the Priests, and the rest of the Israelites. There is definitely a palpable change in the air around the Israelite camps.
It was the eighth day, the culminating event, installing the newly-established High Priests into the newly-built Tabernacle. It was a big deal. In fact, after Aaron performed all the required sacrifices, God even showed up in full glory to appear before all the people, after which, all the people shouted and fell on their faces.
What happened next is clearly stated; why it happened is up for interpretation. The facts are these: Aaron’s sons, “Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before Adonai alien (strange) fire, which God had not instructed them to do. And fire came forth from Adonai and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of Adonai.” (Lev. 10:1-2)
What? The sons were incinerated because they brought an offering of their own? What was the “strange fire?” So what if they did? Did they deserve death?
Some commentators say it was because they were drunk in the holiest spot. Some say it was because they weren’t dressed right, as was described in the instructions. Some say it was because they weren’t married and had no children, because they thought they were so caught up in themselves, no woman was good enough for them. Some say they were just trying to be spontaneous, trying to recreate the glorious moment of God’s presence in the Tabernacle, and they went too far, even though their intentions were good. All of these commentaries come down to the young men were just being foolish. They made a really bad decision. And they died in a horrible, tragic fire-flash.
And this is what leads me back to my own son, the almost-new driver. Young people do incredibly foolish things. And all too often, their foolishness leads to catastrophe. It may seem like Nadav and Avihu’s punishment didn’t fit their crime, but they died nevertheless. Young drivers everywhere make foolish decisions on what to do behind the wheel, whom and how many to have in their cars, bad planning, etc. And the punishment of a catastrophe certainly doesn’t fit the crime of foolishness, but so many die nevertheless.
Maybe Aaron didn’t have the talk with his sons. Maybe he didn’t say, “Look, sons, this is all very new and exciting. But there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with this privilege. Especially at the beginning, as we learn to become comfortable with our roles and our jobs, we have to do things by the book. Be careful. Be thoughtful. Stay within the lines.”
And maybe Aaron did say those things to his sons, but they didn’t get it. That happens,too. Sometimes, no matter what we do as parents, we can’t get through to our kids. And even if we convey our hard-earned wisdom, things happen that don’t make sense.
I still find it hard to accept that what Nadav and Avihu did that was so bad that they needed to die for it. That’s the parent in me speaking. But I can also see a lesson, if not comfort, here: if they were drunk, if they were puffed up with their own importance, if they were being spontaneous – those things may not, in and of themselves, be punishable by death. But any of them can bring you too close to someplace you shouldn’t be, too close to Source of Life and Death, too close to leave safely, too close to be able to walk away.
Now, dear son, let’s get into the car. Here’s what you always need to do. It may seem like a little thing, but it’s important, so first…..