Shabbat shalom. My Torah portion is called Shemini, in the book of Leviticus. Shemini means “eighth,” and my portion starts on the eighth day after the Tabernacle, the portable temple which travels along with the Israelites, is finished. Moses calls Aaron and his sons and gives them instructions for how to offer sacrifices. They offer the sacrifices, and then a fire comes forth from God and consumes the burnt offering.
But there were two other fires that day. Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, offer God a strange fire, “esh zara,” which God had not asked for. A fire comes forth from God and consumes Nadav and Avihu, and they die.
Then Moses says something confusing to Aaron. He says:
“This is what God meant when He said, Through those near to me I show myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.” (More about that later.) The Torah ends this story by saying that Aaron is silent.
When I first read the story of Nadav and Avihu, I had two main questions: why would God take away the lives of Aaron’s sons just for a small mistake, and why would Aaron be silent after their death?
To understand why G-d would consume Nadav and Avihu for offering strange fire, I think we need to understand what strange fire IS.
What could “esh zara” mean?
I came up with three possible interpretations. Maybe it was fire only offered on special occasions; maybe it was a physically unusual fire, like a fire made from strange contents; or maybe it was spiritually unusual - it could symbolize strange ideas, or be used for strange reasons.
There’s no one explanation, in the end—different interpretations of strange fire will make the whole story different. We have to read the text around “strange fire” to know which interpretation to use in context. There’s no right or wrong answer—just different interpretations. Sometimes this is frustrating, but it’s also empowering because you can use your imagination and make your own commentary. My personal interpretation of “strange fire” is that Nadav and Avihu invented the fire themselves. Maybe they added something of their own to the fire, like a piece of gold to symbolize God’s wealth of knowledge, or a feather to symbolize peace. In my interpretation Nadav and Avihu didn’t do anything wrong but I’ll talk about more later.
So, we have some ideas of what strange fire might be. But why would God take Nadav & Avihu's lives for offering it?
At first I was sure it was a punishment: G-d was upset about the strange fire and was punishing Nadav and Avihu by taking away the privilege of living. This raises a lot of problems because G-d is supposed to be good, and to love everyone equally, but to take away someone’s life for something so small, especially when maybe they were trying to do something for you, makes G-d seem hypocritical and cruel.
Some Rabbis agreed that Nadav and Avihu were punished, but denied that G-d could do something so cruel just for making a spontaneous offering of fire. These rabbis looked through the text for a loophole, allowing them to have a reasonable and logical explanation for God’s punishment. In fact, a few verses after the story of Nadav and Avihu, God says to Aaron, "Don't drink alcohol before entering the tent of meeting." The Rabbis draw a connection between this rule and the death of Nadav and Avihu; they think G-d is explaining to Aaron that his sons were killed because they entered the temple drunk.
But as I said before, I think this is kind of an excuse for the rabbis. They want to think that G-d is always right, so they found a way it could be fair for G-d to consume Nadav and Avihu.
There is another way to read this story. Philo, a great Jewish philosopher from Alexandria, Egypt, who lived about 2000 years ago, interprets why G-d consumed Nadav and Avihu very differently. He says they became so holy to G-d that they left their bodies to join their souls to G-d. To Philo the strange fire is not an act of transgression but an act of holiness. That would explain what Moses says to Aaron:
“This is what God meant when He said, Through those near to me I show myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.”
Philo’s explanation is my favorite, because instead of one side or the other being wrong, they’re both good. I’d rather see the positive side than the negative, and interpret the story so both sides are acting out of love rather than crime and punishment.
After Nadav and Avihu are consumed by G-d, the Torah says “And Aaron was silent”. This is the only time the Torah actually states that someone was silent, and I think it is a fascinating detail.
Why was Aaron silent? Even if Philo is right and G-d was rewarding his sons, it must have been difficult for Aaron. It seems like he would cry out or respond somehow to losing Nadav and Avihu!
With Rabbi Lippmann, I tried to think of reasons for Aaron’s silence. Maybe he was taking in what had just happened. Maybe he wanted to speak but couldn’t get the words out. Perhaps sorrow was in him but he could not say it aloud. The Eitz Chayim commentary says, maybe he was so angry at what happened, but restrained himself from speaking.
The dictionary defines silence as an absence of sound, which is what everyone needs once in a while. There are different kinds of silences: calm silence, tense silence, awkward silence. I think Aaron’s was a confused silence. He was confused about whether or not he was angry at G-d or at his sons; whether he was sad about losing his sons, or even jealous of them for being honored so highly!
Only Aaron knew how he felt, and now we have to decide for ourselves how we feel about this story, about Aaron’s sons, about G-d’s morals, and about why things happen in life that we can’t explain. Silence gives us time to answer for ourselves.
Sometimes it's best to clear your head and hear your thoughts, so you can be more open to new things, to change, or to take responsibility. I think that Aaron’s silence can teach us a very powerful lesson in life: If you see something powerful, good or bad, you can step back, sit in silence and let your thoughts consume you.
The Torah says that G-d consumed Nadav and Avihu by fire. In my interpretation, this was a good thing, a holy thing, a way for G-d to bring Nadav and Avihu as close as possible. Maybe silence is, for us, what the fire was for them: a way to be close to G-d.
I’d like to end my dvar torah by inviting us all to be in silence for a minute so that each of us can let ourselves be consumed by silence and see what happens.