April 9, 2021
Our Torah reading this week contains one of the most infamous stories in the Torah, the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu in Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47). As always, the question is, what does this story have to teach us today?
The portion starts off upbeat: the Tabernacle in the desert was just inaugurated and the whole nation is ecstatic. A day of offerings and festivities culminates with a column of fire vaulting down from the Heavens that consumes the offerings (9:24): “And fire went forth from before Adonai and consumed the burnt offerings and the fats upon the altar, and all the people saw, sang praises, and fell upon their faces.”
The showing of Divine Grace enthralled the people. Considering that this overt expression of God’s acceptance came not long after the notorious sin of the Golden Calf, their joy was twofold. Yet, two individuals wanted something more, they desired a deeper personal encounter with the Divine (10:1-2): “And Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, each took his pan, placed hot coals on it, and placed incense upon the coals and they brought them before Adonai, a foreign fire which they had not been commanded. And fire went forth from before Adonai and consumed them and they died before Adonai.”
Why did they need to die? All Nadav and Avihu wanted was a more intimate connection with God. Is that a violation in and of itself? All the commentators seek to find meaning in this challenging episode.
An idea I read from Rabbi Neil Schuman who sometimes viewed this story comparable to when Spock enters the Warp Drive in “The Wrath of Khan.” Spock successfully repowers the drive but dies of radiation poisoning. Likewise, Nadav and Avihu achieved closeness to God yet perished in the experience.
Yet this answer left me unfulfilled. What’s wrong with wanting closeness with God? Aren’t all the mitzvot and prayers just a means to bring us greater connection to God? Isn’t this the ultimate reward in Heaven, bonding with God? Then what’s wrong then with initiating that bond here in this world?
Rabbi Azriel C. Fellner offers an insightful interpretation: “Perhaps it is a story about boundaries between the holy and the profane, between reason and desire, between the thin line that separates the search for a human experience of sanctity and the search for divine approval and sacred space. Perhaps it’s about the intrusion of the human into a private place where certain strict rules apply, the knowledge that as humans we are limited in our understanding and we cannot haphazardly and without proper preparation enter that zone of sanctity.” While Fellner’s offer has merit, I still don’t understand why God would punish one seeking union with God and the universe. We have countless examples of spiritual leaders and even ordinary people attaining great elevation and union with God.
Perhaps we can fuse all these ideas into one, since the story begins with offering incense, it might just be a warning against crossing the borders of this worldly existence through hallucinogenic drugs. This reminded me of the movie, THE DOORS about the life of the great musician, Jim Morrison. It was so dark, I was troubled by it. Drugs brought him to the edge of death and it was when he was nearest death, that Morrison was most alive. He expresses this sentiment in the song “This is the end”:
This is the end, beautiful friend
This is the end, my only friend
The end of our elaborate plans
The end of ev’rything that stands
No safety or surprise
I’ll never look into your eyes again
Can you picture what will be
So limitless and free…
A whole generation of epic musicians died because of overdose: Morrison, Hendrix, Joplin, Moon, Garcia and more. A slew of others barely survived their encounter with mind altering drugs. Aldous Huxley in “The Doors of Perception” opens with the words of poet William Blake, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Huxley says that LSD and the like, remove the filters the brain layers upon ourselves to protect us from informational overload. With the filters removed, unity and oneness along with other perceptions are revealed. The yearning for these perceptions killed Morrison, Hendrix and the rest, perhaps it’s what caused the deaths of Nadav and Avihu as well.
As we enter the stage of legalized marijuana in our state, we would do well to not ignore the mistakes of Nadav and Avihu, our Morrisons and Hendrixs, and make sure we do not seek experiences beyond our limits. We need to be responsible and safe.