Questioning faith in the parsha
Among all the questions raised by the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, one point seems clear – that they are intended to have exemplary value.
For we are told that these deaths redound to the glory of, or somehow honour, God.
First, we might say that every death, like every birth, partakes of something greater, and that this “something greater” is all the more evident when, as here, the decisive moment occurs in the sanctuary.
Then again, perhaps the exemplary value of these two deaths is to be understood not in terms of whatever reasons one might find for them – for instance, that the two brothers were drunk or arrogant or failed to consult with one another or in any other way were violating cultic procedure: the mere fact that the rabbis can’t agree on the nature of their “offence”, or indeed whether their deaths are a punishment or a reward, should caution us against seeking a clear-cut answer.
In any case, we can only ever know the causes of death, immediate or long-term, but not the ultimate reasons, not the place of each life and death in any larger scheme, if there is any such larger scheme. It is surely more profitable to consider just the manner of the brothers’ death and Aaron’s response to it.
Leviticus 10: 1 and 2 distinguishes two types of fire: the “alien”, “strange”, or even “unconsecrated” fire that the brothers bring to the altar, and the fire that “came forth from (or from before) the Lord and consumed them”. Consumed them, but not their clothes, for as we are told later, “[Mishael and Elzaphan] came forward and carried them out of the camp by their tunics…” (10: 5).
This is the fire of divine presence, it is not alien or strange, it is not a physical fire that obeys the laws of chemistry; it is a non-physical fire, a fire of transformation, both of life into death and of creation from the void. This fire that brings death is also the fire that brings life. Life and death are the two faces of existence, just as day and night are the two faces of the earth’s diurnal round.
The message is not that God intervenes in human affairs, whether justly or abusively. But simply that even those who have been chosen as priests, even those who are called to preside before God’s presence, are also men and are also subject to death, even as officiants or intermediaries between the divine presence and the community.
And so Aaron, the high priest, who again is similarly a man, and moreover a man of words, is silent before the death of his sons. As a high priest, he is enjoined by Moses not to succumb to grief. The ordinary people are allowed to “bewail the burning that the Lord has wrought”, but acceptance if required from Aaron and his remaining sons, as priests, as examples to the people. Yet Aaron, in declining to eat (of the sin offering) shows that he nevertheless mourns, and Moses concurs that it is right that he should do so.
The earlier silence of Aaron becomes all the more poignant. His grief is that of the righteous man who stands in the presence of God and accepts that before the sorrow of loss, there is neither remedy nor easy explanation. He must continue to face the fire and aspire to the light.