The Torah portion Acharei Mos, begins with reminding us of the death of Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s two oldest sons who died in parshas Shimini. It is probably not a coincidence that the Jewish custom that after Pesach is to observe about a month of mourning due to the death of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students. Why is there this coincidental theme of death following one of our most uplifting holidays and what are we to learn from it?
The Talmud lists several reasons Nadav and Avihu died during the inauguration of the Mishkan. They range from introducing an alien fire onto the altar, to disrespecting Moses and Aharon, to being drunk, among others. In Acharei Mos, the reason is learned out from the prohibition that no one may enter the innermost chamber of the Mishkan (known as the Holy of Holies) except for the Kohen Gadol and only on Yom Kippur.
Regarding Rabbi Akiva’s students, all 24,000 died in a plague over 33 of the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuos. The period known as the counting of the Omer leads up to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Why did this plague target all of Rabbi Akvia’s students? The Talmud says that they didn’t have respect or honor for one another. When their teacher, Rabbi Akiva’s most prominent Mitzvah was “love your neighbor as yourself” clearly they missed the point.
But is there a deeper connection between these two tragedies?
According to the Maharal of Prague, he adds that not only did Rabbi Akiva’s students not have respect for each other, but they didn’t have respect for each other’s Torah. We all know (I hope) that we should have respect for Torah scholars and Rabbis, as it is a custom to stand when one of a certain Torah stature enters a room. This is also why we stand when we open the Ark to remove the Torah. So for these students to not have respect for each other as Talmidei Chachamim (diligent students of Torah), it was akin to not respecting the Torah itself.
Everyone regards their own Torah ideas highly. Frequently, I’ve attended Torah lectures where someone will ask a question to the Rabbi. But really, they’re just sharing an idea they’ve learned elsewhere as a contribution, sometimes hijacking the lecture. How many times do we disregard or contradict ideas our friends share? How often are we eager to call out an error when we hear someone share something contrary to what we’ve learned?
Fear of Heaven Isn’t about Obedience
When we hear yirah Shamayim (fear of Heaven, fear of God, etc) the concept usually strikes us as restrictive. That there is a judging God who sits, waiting to punish us, the moment we make an error. I believe that concept misses the point of yirah Shamayim. Instead, let’s consider a dangerous tool such as a carving knife. While wielding said knife, we don’t really need to fear it. But I would hope you would feel the same level of caution I feel knowing that if you drop it or make one thoughtless move, someone might spend the next few hours getting stitches in the ER. And if a toddler manages to get a hold of that same knife (God forbid) you’d better believe it’s a terrifying moment. When we don’t understand the power of such a tool, it will be used recklessly and disaster is inevitable.
Knives, guns, cars, nuclear energy, these are tools of potentially tremendous power. Some require a license to be in possession of and operate, others take years of training. Because if they are not used with care and precision, it could spell disaster. But in the right hands and used in the right way, they can revolutionize the world. Should we be fearful of these things? Only if we don’t use them with the proper respect.
This is how we should look at both the Torah and the concept of yirah Shamayim.
Should you Need a License to Read the Torah?
The giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai was a covenant between God and the Jewish people. The potential of that gift opened up literally unlimited possibilities. If used properly, the whole world benefits. If not… the Talmud says one of the reasons the mountain was named Sinai was because it is the place hatred of the Jews came into the world. The idea being that the word Sinai is derived from sin-ah (שִׂנְאָה), meaning hatred. Using the Torah improperly brings disaster that eventually makes its way back to us. Not as a punishment, but as a consequence.
During these days between Pesach and Shavuos we are improving ourselves in hopes of being ready to receive the Torah once again. Do we really have the reverence of Torah that we should? And not just for the scroll in the Ark, but the words of our mentors and our peers. What about the books that Rabbis and scholars have toiled over that sit dusty on our shelves? Even the ideas we’ve learned from before but let ourselves forget. Yet we still gloss over the passages when we cycle through them each yet.
Do we honor Nadav and Avihu and the 24,000 students by taking the lessons of their sacrifices to heart? Or will we find ourselves in fearful situations because we’ve forgotten to honor such a gift and instead used it recklessly?