Learn how the Momentum Campaign is reconstructing Judaism → 

Strange Fire: A Midrash

Instead of a traditional d’var Torah on Parashat Shemini, I chose to write an original midrash about Nadav and Avihu. These two sons of Aaron the High Priest, after seeing Divine fire come down from heaven and devour the first sacrifice made in the newly-dedicated Mishkan (Sanctuary), decide to take matters into their own hands. They bring a “strange fire” before God, that God had not commanded them, and their punishment was to then be devoured by Divine fire. The rabbis have commented on this episode for centuries, questioning whether Nadav and Avihu were simply brash and arrogant upstarts, or if perhaps there was another reason.

I like to think of Nadav and Avihu as the first Reconstructionists. Unfortunately, they were a little ahead of their time and so they suffered the consequences. Once you read my midrash you’ll understand why I say this.

The time had finally arrived. The animals had been slaughtered exactly as God had commanded. They had been placed on the altar. Now they had only to wait.

Aaron, the High Priest, and his sons Elazar, Ithamar, Nadav and Avihu had followed God’s instructions as relayed to them through Aaron’s brother Moses; now they were to see the results of their actions. For the first time they were making a sacrifice on behalf of the people in the newly dedicated Mishkan, the portable desert sanctuary.

As they stood waiting, there suddenly appeared a blinding light in the heavens. A bolt of Divine fire descended upon the altar. In an instant the slaughtered animals were consumed. The sacrifice had been accepted by God. Enveloped by smoke, the smell of charred flesh permeating their nostrils, they could feel the presence of God within and around them. And yet as quickly as it had appeared, so too it dissipated, as quickly as did the smoke from the sacrifice.

Aaron’s sons stood there awestruck. They felt blessed to have been given the duty of serving God and the people through the performance of sacrifices. Their father had already experienced God’s presence directly, along with his brother Moses. This was the first time that the four of them had felt the power of the Presence.

After the smoke disappeared none of the brothers said a word to one another nor to their father. They were too filled with the holiness of the moment. No words could suffice to express their feelings. Instead each went his own way to spend time pondering — and reliving — that holy moment.

Not long after that first sacrifice had been completed, Nadav and Avihu found each other and began to share their thoughts. These two sons of Aaron had always been particularly close to one another and to their father. They shared a sense of connection to Aaron, and with the Divine, that their other brothers did not. They had never spoken of this connection, and yet they and their father knew that it could not be denied. And so together, outside the entrance of the Mishkan, they spoke in hushed tones of what it was like to witness God’s power. As they attempted to share their feelings it became clear that such feelings cannot be expressed in words. “I only wish I could feel that sense of power again,” said Nadav. “But it was not only the power,” replied Avihu, “it was also the beauty of the moment. The beauty of the perfect light of the Divine entering the world and the love of God that I felt in that moment.” Nadav nodded, understanding exactly what Avihu was saying. Then he had a thought. “Avihu, why do we need to wait until Father tells us that it is time to sacrifice again. Why can’t we simply bring our own offering as a way of showing our love and thanks to God? Then we can feel God’s presence again!”

Avihu seemed stunned by his brother’s suggestion. “We can only do what is prescribed by God and at the prescribed hour. We must follow God’s — and our father’s — instructions.” “But why? Are we not priests as well? Don’t we have as much right as our father to worship God? If I want to express my love of God, or my thanks for being freed from slavery or for being a priest why can’t I do that on my own.” “Because, Nadav, we have been instructed in the correct way to worship God. Who knows what might happen if we try doing things on our own! The consequences could be enormous if we did things the wrong way!”

“Wrong!” exclaimed Nadav, “what could be wrong with any way of showing love and thanksgiving to God?” “Nadav, it’s not so simple. You know that God expects our worship to be performed in a specific way. Besides, we’ve only done this once. Even Father approached the task with trepidation, afraid that he might not perform the sacrifice correctly. So who are we to try this on our own?”

Nadav shook his head. In his heart he couldn’t understand why all people, not only the Cohanim, couldn’t show their own love of God by making their own sacrifices. But he knew that these ideas were really too radical for his less adventurous sibling. Instead he continued in his attempt to convince Avihu that there was no earthly reason why they had to wait around for Aaron or Moses to instruct them. If their sacrifice came from their heart then that should be sufficient. It was the intention and not the exact details of the slaughter and sacrifice that mattered.

Avihu finally began to relent, “Perhaps you are right,” he said, “perhaps we can present our own offering before God. Then we will be able to feel God’s power and presence whenever we choose. But I’m still worried about performing the actual slaughter and sacrifice inappropriately. I mean, there must be a reason why God had Moses instruct us in the details.” “All right, ” replied Nadav, “I have a compromise. Instead of sacrificing an animal let us bring something sweet and fragrant before God. What about incense? Let us use their beautiful fragrance as our way of expressing our love. Then God’s presence will again descend upon us and we will witness and be a part of God’s power yet once again…and we won’t have to worry about messing up the sacrifice! Besides, the smell of burning flesh was the least moving part of the whole experience for me. Incense will be much nicer!”

Incense was something to which Avihu could agree. What could be wrong with offering God some sweet smelling spices? And so he agreed to Nadav’s compromise.

The brothers filled their firepans with incense and entered the sanctuary. Their father and brothers turned towards them as they entered. Aaron looked puzzled, but Nadav and Avihu kept moving at a brisk pace towards the altar. Aaron, Elazar and Ithamar began to move towards them. This only made the brothers more determined. They ran more swiftly toward the altar when suddenly everything around them froze. Nadav and Avihu were the only things moving in the sanctuary. Even the flickering flames of the menorah stood frozen in midair. They looked at each other with bewilderment when suddenly they heard a voice coming, it seemed, from all around them. The voice sounded familiar and yet it did not. “Nadav. Avihu. What are you doing?” “Father?” said Nadav, looking towards Aaron. “No,” replied the voice, “It is I. The one who has no name.” The brothers looked at each other in amazement. Could this be? Again the voice spoke to them, “Once more I ask you, what are you doing?” Once they recovered from their initial shock Nadav replied. “We are offering incense to you as a sign of our love and thanksgiving.” “At whose request are you doing this? Did your father or your uncle instruct you to make this offering?” “No,” replied Avihu, “we were just so in awe of our experience of You when we made the sacrifices this morning that we wanted to feel your presence again and offer thanks for all that you have given us.” “And what do you think the people’s reaction will be when they see you make an offering that was not prescribed?” asked God. Neither brother had a response to this. “We never really thought about that.” replied Nadav. “I know,” said God. “I will tell you what the people’s response will be.

“Remember, this is a people who is just now tasting freedom for the first time. This is the same people who built a Golden Calf when they were unsure of my presence. This is a people just learning what it means to have a relationship with me and how to worship me. If they see you, or any among the leaders of the people, making offerings on a whim, they too will believe that they can simply worship whenever and however they so choose.” “But what is wrong with that?” asked Nadav. “In the future there will be nothing wrong with that. But now is not the time for people to create their own way to praise me. First the people must learn my ways. They must allow the service of God to replace the service to Pharaoh in their hearts. They must first learn to know me. The only way that they can do this is by following exactly the prescribed method of worship that I have handed down to Moses and Aaron. Once that structure becomes inscribed upon their hearts and in their minds then, and only then, can they begin to attempt to find new ways to express their devotion to me. I must use you to teach the people this lesson.”

Nadav and Avihu did not like the sound of this. “Exactly how will you use us?” asked Avihu. God hesitated and then replied, “My sons you shall become sanctified to me through fire. At the same time you shall serve as a warning to the people that my instructions must be followed.” “Sanctified through fire?” asked Avihu. “Yes. You are my beloved children, the sons of Aaron, the high priests. I shall bring you to me so that you shall be at my side. Then you shall achieve your goal of feeling my power and love always. And so you shall be sanctified and brought near to me. And then the people shall know not to do as you have done.”

Nadav and Avihu gazed at each other, at first in shock, but then with a look of understanding and acceptance. They realized that they were about to give up their lives in this world in order to teach a lesson to their people. In doing so they would be doing God’s will and be brought closer to God. Once this became clear they were not afraid, but rather they felt blessed to be able to fulfill this role. “We are ready to do your will,” they responded as one.

At that moment the world around them began to move once again. The two brothers stopped and looked at each other for a split second. They then turned and ran to place their pans upon the altar. Just as they did so a blinding light appeared in the heavens, a light which then hurtled towards the earth and smote Nadav and Avihu as they gazed into each other’s eyes. Aaron ran over and looked down at the remains of his two beloved sons. They seemed so filled with peace. He then looked up towards the heavens and an almost imperceptible smile appeared upon his face. It was as if he knew and understood exactly what had just occurred. He then turned towards his two remaining sons and told them to remove their brothers’ bodies from the sanctuary for, regardless of whatever shock or grief they might be feeling, the time had once again come for God’s work to be performed.

And so Aaron and his sons continued to carry out the sacrifices just as God had prescribed, as did the Cohanim for generations to follow. Only later on, long after the sacrifices had ceased to exist did the spirit of Nadav, whose name means “the one who has given”, and Avihu, meaning “he is my father” descend upon the people of Israel. Only then were they finally encouraged to find their own path to give thanks to their Divine parent so that they too could become sanctified and holy in the eyes of God and the community and carry on the names of these two holy ancestors of Israel.

The Reconstructionist Network

Serving as central organization of the Reconstructionist movement

Training the next generation of groundbreaking rabbis

Modeling respectful conversations on pressing Jewish issues

Curating original, Jewish rituals, and convening Jewish creatives

The Reconstructionist Network