Shabbat Acharei Mot: Arrogance

April 28, 2022 by Jeremy Rosen
Read on for article

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.

They had seen, how supernatural fire had come down to consume the sacrifice. Like everyone else, they were struck with awe.

Why then did these two, heirs apparent to Aaron, 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 suggested in Rabbinic texts as to why. One is that they were drunk! The laws immediately after the event warn against a priest serving in a state of drunkenness. Public service required sobriety and the dignity of religious practice had to be assured. Perhaps this was a warning to students who often allow booze to influence their actions and make terrible decisions that can affect their lives negatively.

Another theory is that they were impatient to gain political control. They walked behind Moshe and Aaron muttering that they wished these old fogies would retire and leave the field clear for them. Perhaps the two young priests thought they knew better. The arrogance of youth, thinking that they could take the initiative in religious matters in the presence of their elders without consultation.

There is no clue in the text for this, but it shows the sort of thinking the Rabbis had two thousand years ago and the way it coloured their interpretation of the Torah. 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 the material. 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 on extra laws and obligations and that this is 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 what God wants of us. More can be less.

Perhaps this is why the episode of Nadav and Avihu is mentioned this week just before the laws of atonement on Yom Kippur. We all need to atone, even the most religious of us, for excess, just as much as for rejecting the obligations of the Torah.

Leviticus Chapters 16-19

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen lives in New York. He was born in Manchester. His writings are concerned with religion, culture, history and current affairs – anything he finds interesting or relevant. They are designed to entertain and to stimulate. Disagreement is always welcome.

Speak Your Mind

Comments received without a full name will not be considered
Email addresses are NEVER published! All comments are moderated. J-Wire will publish considered comments by people who provide a real name and email address. Comments that are abusive, rude, defamatory or which contain offensive language will not be published

Got something to say about this?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.