Playing with Fire
With Passover now over, we return to the weekly installment of the sacred saga, and this week takes us into the fire, literally, retelling a tragedy that engulfed, like flames, an auspicious day awaited with much anticipation.
The name of this week’s Torah episode is Shmini – the Eighth Day – and it refers to the day on which the Tabernacle was to be officially inaugurated, following seven days of intricate rituals. In chapter 9 of Leviticus, Aaron and his sons successfully perform their required duties, and right on cue the heavenly fire descends from heaven and consumes the offerings. The Hebrews love the fireworks, “and all the people saw, shouted, and fell on their faces.” But playing with fire is tricky business, even for Levites, and the joy quickly turned to horror as something went terribly wrong: the Eighth Day of celebration turned into the first day of seven days of mourning for two young priests, the sons of Aaron. Were they victims, martyrs or sinners? Different translations shed different light on what exactly happens here, altering their actions, motives and consequences – giving us various options to comprehend an otherwise totally mysterious and heartbreaking event:
Leviticus 10:1-2 Now Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered alien fire before the LORD, which he had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them. (JPS)
The key word here is the one used to describe the fire – JPS uses ‘Alien’ to translate the Hebrew Zara, while the King James prefers ‘unholy’, and others opt for ‘outside fire’ or ‘strange fire’.
The Hebrew root – ZAR carries the suggestion of the estranged, the profane, even the abnormal, and there are other synonyms—excessive, deviant or perverse—which suggest something about the character and motivation of the two sons. On the other hand in some classic commentaries, their trespass is viewed as an excess of zeal and their deaths a kind of holy ecstasy. The Zohar, for instance, sees their death not as a sign of profane behavior but simply as a warning for the importance of timing and preparation when matters of the mystical are at hand.
In the end their motives remain a mystery, but Nadab and Abihu are remembered as boundary crossers, guilty of excess. Their deaths remain a warning of what it means to play with divine fire. How thin the line between being ‘fired up’ and being ‘fired’…
Those of us who play with the sacred fires of our tradition—the white fire and the black—find in these two sons of Aaron a cautionary tale. How much is too much? When are we – as individuals or a community – guilty of bringing too much ‘other’ into our inherited legacy, and is there a measure for that ‘otherness’? The eighth day looms over the book of Leviticus, smoke trailing off into the Sinai sky, etching question marks that linger on:
Where and when are we playing with fire in our lives? (Think Don Imus…)