One of my favorite experiences of my early career was working as a writers apprentice on the TV show Robot Chicken. I had watched the pop culture sketch animation show since college and getting to sit in the room with writers such as Seth Green, Rachel Bloom, and Matt Beans was a mind blowing experience. One day, I was in the room and they were writing a Disney parody sketch. While getting swept up with the swirling energy of the room, I broke my silence and pitched a joke.
Now if there’s one rule an assistant must follow, it’s shut up. An assistant/intern/apprentice’s place in the coveted writers room is a privilege. Stepping out of line even an inch can lead to disastrous consequences. Luckily in my case, the writers just moved on and there was little fallout for my interjection (another testament to how super cool that room was). But there was an essential lesson I had not yet learned and in another circumstance, the repercussions could have been far more severe. Like for instance, the highly troubling event concerning the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, in this week’s Torah portion, Shemini.
Consecration and Disaster
Shemini starts with the maiden voyage of the newly built Mishkan. For the last seven Torah portions, the Jews have been learning about the laws, construction, and duties concerning the portable Temple known as the Mishkan. Finally after all the preparation, Aharon is ready to perform the sacred rituals and bring down the Shechinah (presence of God) for the Jewish nation to see. But in the midst of the miracle, suddenly a fire sprouts forth and consumes Aharon’s two oldest son’s Nadav and Avihu, instantly killing them.
It’s a puzzling and disturbing moment. The Jews haven’t seen the presence of God since Mount Sinai and just as they are finally getting to experience that holiness, without warning, two of the most exalted members of the nation are taken. Why would God do such a thing?
Six Reasons Why
The rabbis give many reasons for the death of Nadav and Avihu, but I’m going to focus on six main ones. (By the way I gave an alternate take on all this a couple of years ago.)
The Alien Fire
The only reason the Torah itself actually gives is that Nadav and Avihu brought an alien or strange fire which God had not commanded. (Vayikra 10:1) It’s immediately after this a fire consumes them.
They Were Drunk
Immediately after the entire ordeal, God commands Aharon to instruct that no Kohanim (priest of the Temple) may drink when entering the Mishkan to do the service. (Vayikra 10:9)
They Didn’t Get Married and Have Children
This reason doesn’t come directly from the Torah but from the Gemara which states that for whatever reason, the two sons refused to get married. Perhaps had they been married, when the told their wives they were going to bring something special (the alien fire) to the service, their wives would have told them not to be stupid and they’d have survived the day.
Gave Opinions Before Moses and Aharon
It is said that for any student to give a Torah ruling (known as a Psak) in front of their Rabbi it is worthy of death. Granted that may sound a bit extreme, but to do otherwise is a fundamental misunderstanding of the chain of transmission (known as the Mesorah) by which we learn and understand Torah. For Nadav and Avihu to be giving rulings in front of Moses and Aharon, the two people who were actually speaking to God is, what we’d call, a tremendous chutzpah.
Sat Back and Said When Are These Two Oldies Going to Die
Another Gemara says that they didn’t just give Psak before Moses and Aharon, they were eagerly awaiting their opportunity to take over the leadership. Now this may sound pretty dastardly, but there is some merit in recognizing when the older generation should step down for new leadership who understands the needs of the younger generation. But Nadav and Avihu’s mistake is that they could have started that leadership without needing to wait for their father and uncle to die.
They Didn’t Consult with Each Other
The last opinion I’m going to mention is that Nadav and Avihu didn’t consult with one another when they went into the Kodesh HaKadoshim (aka the Holy of Holies). Meaning that they each individually had the idea to bring the strange fire into the inner sanctum and when they got there, found their brother doing the same thing. One opinion states that had just one of them entered the Kodesh HaKadoshim alone, they wouldn’t have died. But since both of them did, that for whatever reason, sealed their fate. Had they consulted with each other, they would have realized it wasn’t such a good idea and avoided the whole thing to begin with.
Give When You Should Receive
So we’ve got a plethora of reasons why the tradition says Nadav and Avihu were worthy of death. But according to Rabbi Dovid Kaplan, there’s a unifying theme under all these reasons. According to him, a person needs to understand their place in a given situation. Sometimes a person gets to be a giver and sometimes a person needs to be a receiver. The reasons listed above all align with a misappropriation of those roles.
Making a ruling before your teacher is a misunderstanding of the value of experience and honor. If you’re in the presence of your teacher and you’re trying to look smart, it means you’re not listening and learning. Waiting for Moses and Aharon to step down implies the sons thought they had learned everything they needed. Not consulting with one another meant they were so sure of themselves they disregarded the perspective of their peers, failing to take into account the very generation they felt their elders didn’t understand. And by bringing the strange fire, they were confident they could change the rituals based on how they felt it should go. All clear demonstrations of being givers when they should have been receivers.
As for not getting married and having kids, that’s an example of when they should have been givers and neglected that opportunity. Lastly, we have the drinking. There are a plethora of reasons why one shouldn’t drink on the job and how doing so may get in the way of being a receiver. But I’ll defer to Rabbi Kaplan’s lecture which illustrates a hidden connection. You’ll just have to watch him give it over if you want that answer.
How Do We Know Our Role?
According to Rabbi Noach Weinberg’s 48 Ways to Wisdom, number 26: Makir Es Mekomo (Knowing Your Place) it all comes down to knowing where you stand in relation to others. That’s not always the easiest thing to do. It takes humility, listening, and seeing others for who they are, opposed to letting ourselves feel threatened.
The first step is evaluating your strengths and weaknesses. It is important to be confident in who you are, but knowing where we fall short means we can open ourselves to how others deal with those challenges. The second step is to know before who you stand. Pirkei Avos 5:9 says, “A learned person does not speak in the presence of someone greater than him in wisdom or in years.” We all want to prove ourselves, but someone who knows how to listen will go a lot farther than someone trying to finish the boss’s sentences. The third step is understanding the need. In a situation where no one is willing or able to step forward to take on the challenge, that’s the moment to shine. As Pirkei Avos also says, “In a place where there are no leader, strive to be a leader. “(2:5)
It is an essential lesson to learn as the vast majority of us want to be the giver, the person in charge, calling the shots, being valued for our inputs and insights. But if we don’t understand when we need to play the role of the receiver we can get ourselves into a lot of trouble. It’s for this reason, I believe the Torah makes such a bold example of Nadav and Avihu. Even if you think you’re at the top, over stepping your role just might cost you everything.