The tragedy is recounted, not in the immediately preceding parasha, Metzora, nor in the parasha before that, Tazria, but in the third parsha preceding this week's reading, Shemini. It is there that we read a perplexing event: Aaron sacrificed the animals, then lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them. Then Aaron and Moses went inside the Tent of Appointed Meeting. When they came out again, they blessed the people, and the glory of God revealed itself to all the people. Fire went forth from before God and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted for joy, and fell on their faces.Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire into it and placed incense upon it. Then they brought before God strange fire that God had not enjoined upon them. Then fire went forth from before God and consumed them and they died before God.
Moses said to Aaron, “This is what God said, 'I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me, thus I will be honored before the entire peoples.'” Aaron was silent.
How can we possibly understand and integrate into our understanding of Judaism a God that kills two young men who display spontaneous love and devotion to God?
It is in this moment that we confront an essential difference between the Israelite religion described in the Torah and the rabbinic Judaism our people have practiced for 2000 years: The Israelite religion of the Torah was cult of sacrifice led by an oligarchy, a dynasty of priests. From Aaron to his sons, to their sons . . . . until the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, Israelite service to God was channeled through a series of sacrifices of various categories mediated by and facilitated by the kohanim, the dynastic priesthood. For all the information provided in the book of Vayikra/Leviticus about the conduct of the sacrificial system, there was esoteric knowledge that was shared only with successive generations of kohanim. This was a hierarchical system structured in a society that shared certain assumptions about the service of God and the relationship between the people, the priesthood and God.
Nadab and Abihu broke those esoteric rules and it may well be that the story of their death was meant to be a cautionary tale to subsequent generations of kohanim who might seek to create their own traditions beyond the bounds of priestly disciplines.
The rabbinic Judaism we practice today is the result of a revolution: the Judaism that has evolved and grown and reflected the real-life commitments and passions of Jews around the world for 2000 years was born of discussions by scholars in houses of study 2000 years ago. Around those tables were Jews of all backgrounds, rich and poor; Jews of all categories, kohanim, levi'im and plain Israelites; tradesmen and merchants and men (yes, men) of independent means. The only path to advancement was your learning, not who your father was, not how much money you had. The learning was guided by a number of principles: all opinons brought in humility and faith are equally important and worth preserving; we respect and name those who have contributed insight and learning to our tradition; learning is accessible to all who seek it.
In the world of rabbinic Judaism there is no punishment for spontaneity in devotion, there is no rejection of creativity and honest exploration of our tradition. It is the rise of rabbinic Judaism, born in the discussions of the Mishna, Tosefta, Midrash and Talmud that is responsible for the fact that Judaism is alive, well, thriving and evolving to this day. We look back at the tragedy of Nadab and Abihu with compassion and self-differentiation . . . their actions today would have brought them closer to a God who has grown with us instead of condemning them to death.