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Shabbat Acharei Mot: The Danger of Extremism

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

Opinion

Reading from a Torah scroll in accordance with Sephardi tradition. Photo: Sagie Maoz via Wikimedia Commons.

Previously in Leviticus Chapter 9, the two sons of Aaron — Nadav, and Avihu had watched and participated in the dedication of the priests and the tabernacle. Like everyone else, they had seen how supernatural fire had come down to consume the sacrifice, and they were awed.

Why then did these two heirs apparent, take the risk of bringing “strange fire” into the tabernacle when it specifically says that they were not commanded to? As a result, they were burnt to death.

There are various theories in Rabbinic texts as to why this happened. One is that they were drunk. The laws immediately after the event warn against a priest serving in a state of drunkenness.

Another theory is that they were impatient to gain political control. They walked behind Moshe and Aaron, muttering that the two should retire and leave the field clear for them. Perhaps the two young priests thought they knew better — the arrogance of youth.

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The impatience of youth is not a bad thing. But it needs qualification. You cannot overthrow an existing system unless you have a very clear vision of what you want to replace it with. There is positive dynamism, and there is negative rebellion. Nadav and Avihu were examples of the latter.

But there is another approach that sees the two as mystical innovators. They were so carried away by the ecstasy of the moment that they simply felt constrained by the formality of the ritual and wanted to reach beyond the limitations of it. Like Icarus in Greek mythology, they wanted to soar to heaven, in a state of ecstasy. Their fate was a warning that mystical excess can also be dangerous. Trying to reach out to God whether by using drugs or alcohol or simply excessive religious passion can lead to delusion. This was a warning.

One of the dangers of religion is that it can lead to extremes. Mysticism can get out of hand and excessive. And people often think they need to add extra laws and obligations to what God wants. After all, Nadav and Avihu were adding, not subtracting. But the Torah warns against adding as much as against subtracting. Alas, nowadays, that idea often gets ignored in the fashionable rush toward extremes. This episode teaches us that more is not necessarily better.

Shabbat Shalom.

The author is a writer and rabbi living in New York.

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