The Torah begins with the theme of creating order out of chaos. God imposes order on the world by acts of separating, naming, and placing—in other words, by creating distinctions. Put another way, distinctions create order. Although the Torah never explains why chaos is undesirable, it resonates as redolent of anarchy, violence, and threat.
The idea of distinctions persists throughout the Torah and in Jewish life. The word lehavdil (to separate/distinguish) occurs in the first act of Creation—"God separated/distinguished between light and darkness." The theme continues into this week's parashah, Shemini. Beyond the Bible, the theme of distinctions has a prominent place in the first of the berakhot in the central section of the daily ‘Amidah, in which we thank God for granting humans binah (understanding—the ability to differentiate). It finds expression in havdalah, in which we thank God for differentiating between light and darkness, Shabbat and the rest of the week, and so on.
This theme of distinctions is presented in two ways in Parashat Shemini: in a story, and in the laws regarding which animals may be eaten. I will concentrate on the story, which is short and tragic:
Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his fire pan; they put fire in them and placed incense upon it; and they brought before God an alien fire that had not been commanded of them. A fire came forth from before God and consumed them, and they died before God. Moses said to Aaron: "This is what God meant when God said: 'Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.'" And Aaron was silent. (Lev: 10:1–3)
The phrase "that had not been commanded of them" seems to be key. It is a contrast with the many chapters that precede this story, in which Moses and all the Israelites concerned with building, furnishing, and dedicating the movable Tabernacle, the Mishkan, created each item "as God commanded them." Nadab and Abihu went out of bounds, and died as a result.
The story is troubling to me for a few reasons. It seems to undermine any sense that there is room for innovation or creativity in holy service for the community of Israel. In addition, in the story, God's response to Nadab and Abihu seems extreme—one action, and the men are killed. Where is the warning, such as the many warnings at Sinai, about boundaries? The distinction between "commanded" and "not commanded" does not seem a sufficient distinction.
Traditional commentators were also troubled by the story, and searched for explanations that would point to some unnamed and greater wrong, something that we, as readers, could find acceptable as a capital offense. For instance, some said that Nadab and Abihu were drunk when they were serving in the Mishkan. Others said that they were trying to undermine the authority of Moses and Aaron, chafing at the bit to take over the religious leadership of Israel. In other words, the commentators looked for a justification for the punishment in the actions and motivations of Nadab and Abihu. They could not tolerate, any more than we can, the idea that God acted in a capricious, unintelligible way. To them, the proposition of God's justice was foundational.
The idea that God is just is first articulated in Parashat Va-yera (Gen. 18:23–25), when Avraham challenges God's decision to destroy Sodom:
Avraham approached God, and said, "Will You really sweep away the tzaddik [the righteous] with the evil? Perhaps there are 50 tzaddikim in the city—will you really sweep them away, and not forgive, on account of the 50 within the city? Far be it from You to do this thing, to kill the tzaddik with the evil—and it will be same for the tzaddik, and for the evil—far be it from You! Will the Judge of all the earth not do justice?"
No one ever told Avraham that God is just—but that was the only way he could understand God, and so it is with us.
Once God's justice becomes an axiom in Torah, then Nadab and Abihu become culpable. We can look more closely at the traditional explanations, and understand that each explanation represents the sons as disdaining necessary boundaries. If the explanation is that they were trying to undermine the authority of Moses and Aaron, then they were guilty of insubordination that could cause fracture and chaos in the Israelite religious community in its infancy. If they were drunk, their lack of sobriety regarding their roles as religious leaders destroyed their raison d'être as Cohanim. And if the cause of their demise was their perspective that what God commanded was not sufficient, and that they had to improvise their own ritual, then it was a breach of the essential role of Cohanim—to be the ritual bridge between God and the people, but not the engineers of that bridge.
In our own times, we struggle with the tension between innovation and conservation of tradition. We need Jewish distinctions that keep us meaningfully identifiable and that enhance our commitment to justice in the world, as part of our imitation of God. Often, these commitments invite, or even require, innovation. Our challenge is to make sure that our innovations preserve the foundational values of our tradition, even while they keep them fresh and accessible.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.