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Divine Service: Law and Ecstasy

Shmini (Leviticus 9-11 )

by Rabbi Zev Leff

"The sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire pan. They put fire in them and placed incense upon it, and they brought before God an alien fire that He had not commanded them. A fire came forth from before God and consumed them, and they died before God." (Leviticus 10:1-2)

The Sages present us with various explanations as to what transgression Nadav and Avihu committed, for which they incurred the punishment of being consumed by the heavenly fire. These include:

  1. They entered the Tabernacle either drunk, or without properly cutting their hair, or without the proper priestly garments.
  2. They did not defer the honor of bringing this fire to their father, Aaron.
  3. They did not consult with Moses, or with one another, prior to bringing the fire.
  4. They did not marry.
  5. They remarked, "When will these two old men [Moses and Aaron] die, so that we can lead the generation?"

Since the Torah explicitly tells us the nature of their sin – that they brought "a strange fire" – why did the Sages find it necessary to add their own explanations? Furthermore, the Sages tell us that already at Mount Sinai, Nadav and Avihu were liable to a death penalty for their casual demeanor when they experienced their prophetic vision of the Divine Presence. Only the fact that God did not want to disturb the joy of the giving of the Torah, saved them from Divine execution at that time.

This explanation, however, raises yet new difficulties. The consecration of the Tabernacle, like the day of the giving of the Torah, was a day of unparalleled joy, as is described in the Midrash. Why, then, did God not refrain from killing Nadav and Avihu out of fear of diminishing the rejoicing?

Moses said to the Jewish people: "Remove the yetzer hara (negative inclination) from your hearts so that you will be inspired with a common awe and service of God. As He is One, so too should your service to Him be one." (Midrash – Yalkut Shemini 521)

Already in the time of Moses, says the Netziv, there were those who sought to experience religious ecstasy and draw near to the Divine through means other than those delineated by the Torah. It was from this yetzer hara that Moses exhorted the people to distance themselves, for the desire to draw close to God in ways not prescribed is not holiness; it is the work of the yetzer hara.

As the Sages say on the verse:

"This is the thing that God commanded for you to do and the Glory of God will appear to you." (Leviticus 9:6)

When one relies on his emotions alone in determining his path to God, then each person creates his own path and the service of God is fragmented into many diverse molds, which is a contradiction to God's Oneness. Therefore the paths must be guided and defined by the Torah so that the resultant unity of expression reflects God's unity.

Divine service must be a blend of emotion with meticulous care to express that emotion in the manner prescribed by God Himself – i.e., the Torah's framework must be infused with one's own unique emotions and sensitivities. To ignore the framework that the Torah prescribes, and seek to create paths to God based on subjective emotions and intuition, is to echo the sin of the Golden Calf. That too was an attempt to create a bond with God through a non-prescribed intermediary.

All attempts to seek a religious experience through ceremonies or rituals forbidden by the Torah or Rabbinic decree – e.g., deviant forms of Judaism – or to contrive rituals as a reflection of cultural attitudes foreign to Torah – e.g., the ritual immersion of eight-day-old girls – are expressions of the yetzer hara that had to be eliminated before God's Presence could dwell in the Tabernacle. The necessary condition for the Tabernacle to serve as God's dwelling place was that it was constructed precisely "as God commanded Moses."


Nadav and Avihu, though great men, were smitten with this yetzer hara to express themselves according to their dictates, not God's. They first exhibited this weakness at Sinai when their ecstasy in perceiving the Divine Presence was not bound by the requirements of respect and seriousness. God hoped that the giving of the Torah would rectify the inclination they showed there, for it is the purpose of the Torah to guide our innermost spiritual strivings and emotions. That is why Nadav and Avihu were spared at Sinai.

On the day that the Tabernacle was consecrated and the foundation for all future service to God established, Nadav and Avihu showed that the corrective had not worked. They were inspired to bring humanly-produced fire for the altar, which would mingle with the Divine fire descending from Heaven. The fire they brought is initially described simply as a "fire"; only subsequently was it transformed into "a strange or unwanted fire." Their desire to draw close to God was not in itself strange, only their method of doing so.

All of Nadav and Avihu's transgressions fit this aspect of the yetzer hara. In their quest to gain a closeness to God, they ignored the form dictated by the Torah. They did not ask advice; they did not accord the honor to their elders; they ruled on Halachic questions in the presence of their teacher Moses. They entered the Tabernacle literally intoxicated with emotion, without considering whether their dress or appearance was within the parameters of the Torah.

The day the Tabernacle was consecrated set the foundation for all future service. Therefore, God stressed from the beginning the danger of Divine service based on emotion alone. Through the deaths of Nadav and Avihu came a resounding message for all future generations: Divine service cannot be based on emotion alone, but must first and foremost be founded on conformity to the Halachah.


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