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Friday, March 25, 2011

Parshat Shemini - A Midrash on Nadav and Avihu: Mindful Innovation

The parashah this week is Shemini (Vayikra/Leviticus 9:1-11:37). Instead of a traditional d'var Torah I am sharing with all of you an original midrash I wrote about Nadav and Avihu. 

These two sons of Aaron, the High Priest, after seeing Divine fire come down from heaven and devour the first sacrifice made in the newly-dedicated mishkan (Sanctuary), decide to take matters into their own hands. They bring a "strange fire" before God, that God had not commanded them, and their punishment was that they were then devoured by Divine fire. The rabbis have commented on this for years, questioning whether Nadav and Avihu were simply brash, arrogant upstarts, or if something else prompted them to bring the "strange fire" before God.

I have always liked to think of Nadav and Avihu as the first religious innovators, trying to build on tradition while creating meaningful ritual. Unfortunately, they were a little ahead of their time and so they suffered the consequences. Once you read my midrash you'll understand why I say this.

However, I also believe this narrative can relate to the principles of mindfulness. You will see my comments on this in the epilogue.

Strange and Holy Fire
The time had finally arrived.  The animals had been slaughtered and placed on the altar exactly as God had commanded.  Now they had only to wait.
For the first time Aaron and his sons were making a sacrifice on behalf of the people in the newly dedicated mishkan, the portable desert sanctuary.

As they stood waiting, there suddenly appeared a blinding light in the heavens. A bolt of fire then descended upon the altar and in an instant the slaughtered animals were consumed.  The sacrifice had been accepted by God.  Enveloped by smoke, the smell of charred flesh permeating their nostrils, they could feel the presence of God within and around them.  Yet, as quickly as it had appeared, so too it dissipated with the smoke from the sacrifice.

Aaron’s sons stood awestruck. They felt blessed to have been given the duty of serving God and the people through the performance of sacrifices.  Their father had already experienced God’s presence, along with Moses, but this was the first time that the four of them had felt the power of the Presence.

After the smoke disappeared none of the brothers said a word.  So filled were they with the holiness of the moment, there were no words to express their feelings.  Instead, each went his own way to spend time pondering - and reliving -- that holy moment.

Not long after that first sacrifice had been completed, Nadav and Avihu found each other and began to share their thoughts.  These two sons of Aaron had always been particularly close to each other and to their father.  They shared a sense of connection to Aaron, and with the Divine, that their other brothers did not.  They had never spoken of this connection, yet they and their father could not deny it. And so together, outside the entrance of the mishkan, they spoke in hushed tones of how it felt to witness God’s power.  As they attempted to share their feelings, it became clear that they could not be expressed in mere words.  “I only wish I could feel that sense of Divine power again,” said Nadav.  “But it was not only the power,” replied Avihu, “it was also the beauty of the moment.  The beauty of the perfect light of the Divine entering the world and the love of God that I felt in that moment.”  Nadav understood Avihu completely.  Suddenly, he had a thought.

“Avihu, why do we need to wait until father tells us that it is time to sacrifice again?  Why can’t we simply bring our own offering as a way of showing our love and thanks to God?  Then we can feel God’s presence again!”
Avihu seemed stunned by his brother’s suggestion;  “we can only do what is prescribed by God at the prescribed hour.  We must follow God’s - and father’s - instructions.”  “But why? Are we not priests as well? Don’t we have as much right as our father to worship God?  If I want to express my love of God, or my thanks for being freed from slavery or for being a priest why can’t I do that on my own?”  “Because, Nadav, we have been instructed in the correct way to worship God.  Who knows what might happen if we try doing things on our own!  The consequences could be enormous if we made a single mistake!”

“No!” exclaimed Nadav, “what could be wrong with any way of showing love and thanksgiving to God?” “Nadav, it’s not so simple.  You know that God expects our worship to be performed in a specific way.  Besides, we’ve only done this once.  Even father approached the task with trepidation, afraid that he might not perform the sacrifice correctly.  So who are we to try this on our own.”

Nadav shook his head. In his heart, he couldn’t understand why all people, not only the priests, couldn’t show their own love of God by making their own sacrifices.  But he knew that these ideas were really too radical for his somewhat less adventurous brothers, father and uncle.  Instead, he continued his attempt to convince Avihu that there was no earthly reason why they had to wait around for Aaron or Moses to instruct them.  If their sacrifice came from their heart then that should be sufficient.  It was the intention and not the exact details of the slaughter and sacrifice that mattered.

Avihu finally began to relent, “Perhaps you are right,” he said, “Perhaps we can present our own offering before God.  Then we will be able to feel God’s power and presence whenever we choose.  But I’m still worried about performing the actual slaughter and sacrifice inappropriately.  I mean, there must be a reason why God had Moses instruct us in the details.”   “ I have a compromise,” replied Nadav.  “Instead of sacrificing an animal let us bring something sweet and fragrant like incense before God, let us use their sweet fragrance to express our love of God.  Then God’s presence will again descend upon us and we will witness and be a part of God’s power yet once again … and we won’t have to worry about messing up a sacrifice!  Besides, the smell of burning flesh was the least moving part of the whole experience for me. Incense will be much nicer!” 

Incense was something to which Avihu could agree.  After all, what could be wrong with offering God some sweet smelling spices?  And so, he agreed to Nada’s compromise.

Nadav and Avihu filled their fire pans with incense and entered the sanctuary.  Their father and brothers turned towards them as they entered.  Aaron looked puzzled, but Nadav and Avihu kept moving at a brisk pace towards the altar.  Aaron, Elazar and Ithamar began moving towards them.  This only made the brothers more determined.  They proceeded more swiftly toward the altar when, suddenly, everything around them froze.  Nadav and Avihu were the only people or things moving in the sanctuary.  Even the flames of the menorah stood frozen in midair.  They looked at each other bewildered when suddenly they heard a voice coming, it seemed, from all around them.  The voice sounded familiar, yet not.  “My sons, what are you doing?”   “Father?” said Nadav, looking towards Aaron.  “No,” replied the voice, “It is I.  The one who has no name.” The brothers looked at each other in amazement.  Could this be?  Again the voice spoke to them, “Once more I ask you, what are you doing?”  Once they recovered from their initial shock Nadav replied,  “We are offering incense to you as a sign of our love and gratitude.”  “At whose request are you doing this?  Did your father or your uncle instruct you to make this offering?”  “No,” replied Avihu, “we were so in awe of our experience of You when we offered the sacrifices, that we wanted to feel your presence again and offer thanks for all that you have given us.”  “And what do you think the people’s reaction will be when they see you make an offering that was not prescribed?”  Neither brother had a response to this.  “We never thought about that,” replied Nadav.  “I will tell you what the people’s response will be.”  After a pause, God continued speaking.

“Remember, this is a people who is just now tasting freedom for the first time.  This people built a Golden Calf when they were unsure of my presence.  This people is just learning what it means to have a relationship with me and how to worship me.  If they see you, their priests, making offerings on a whim, they too may believe that they can simply worship whenever and however they so choose.”  “But what is wrong with that,” asked Nadav?  “In the future there will be nothing wrong with that," replied God,   "but now is not the time for them to create their own ways to praise me.  First, the people – and their leaders – must learn my ways.  They must allow the service of God to replace the service to Pharaoh in their hearts.  They must come to know me. The only way that they can do this is by following exactly the prescribed method of worship that I have handed down to Moses and Aaron.  Once that structure becomes inscribed upon their hearts and in their minds then, and only then, can they begin to search for new ways to express their devotion to me. And I must use you to teach the people this lesson.” 

Nadav and Avihu did not like the sound of this.  “Exactly how will you use us?” asked Avihu.  God hesitated and then replied, “My sons you shall become sanctified to me through fire. At the same time you shall serve as a warning to the people that my instructions must be followed.”  “Sanctified through fire?” asked Avihu.  “Yes.  You are my beloved children, the sons of Aaron.  I shall bring you near to me.  You shall be at my side.  You shall indeed achieve your goal of feeling my presence always, while at the same time the people shall learn not to do as you have done.”

Nadav and Avihu gazed at each other, at first in shock, but then with a look of understanding and acceptance.  They realized that they were about to give up their lives in this world in order to instruct the people.  In doing so, they would also be brought closer to God, which was their original goal.  Once this became clear they were no longer afraid, but rather, they felt blessed to be able to fulfill this role.  “We have heard what you have said and we are ready to do your will,” they responded as one.

At that precise moment, the world around them began to move once again.  The two brothers stopped and looked at each other momentarily.  They then hurried to place their pans upon the altar.  As they did so, a blinding light appeared in the heavens, which then hurtled towards the earth and smote Nadav and Avihu as they gazed knowingly into each other’s eyes.

Aaron walked over and looked at the remains of his two beloved sons lying there.  They seemed so filled with peace.  Then, as looked up towards the heavens, an almost imperceptible smile appeared upon his face; at the same time, tears began to flow.  In that moment, he knew and understood what had just occurred.  He then turned towards his two remaining sons and told them to remove their brothers’ bodies from the sanctuary for, regardless of whatever shock or grief they might be feeling, the time had once again come for God’s work to be performed.  

Aaron and his sons continued from then on to perform the sacrifices just as God had prescribed, as did the priests for generations to follow.  Only centuries later, long after the sacrifices had ceased to take place, did the spirit of Nadav, whose name means “the one who has given,” and Avihu, meaning, “he is my father” descend upon the people of Israel.  That spirit continues to this day allowing, indeed encouraging, all of us to find our own paths to give thanks to and praise God.  By doing so, with the kind of presence and passion that these two brothers had, we too have the opportunity in each moment to become sanctified and holy in the eyes of God and the entire community of Israel.


After re-reading my midrash I wondered how it might relate to principles of mindfulness. In pondering this question I came up with a few responses:

1) Re-reading the original narrative and my midrash, reminded me of the importance of the moment. Being mindful of my current reactions helped me to catch a glimpse of where I was in the moment when I read the text. This "being in the moment" is certainly an essential tenet of mindfulness.

2) In reading the text I realized that there were parts of my midrash (which I originally wrote a few years back) with which I no longer agreed. My urge was to change the midrash in order to make it read as I would like it to read in 2011. However, this was based in a belief that the current midrash was not "perfect". It was not exactly what I wanted it to be at this moment. However, nothing is perfect, nothing is the best or worst. things simply are what they are. If we try to change ourselves in order to make ourselves "better" it not only implies that we are not good as we are, it does not allow us to
appreciate who we are (or what we have created) simply as it is - warts, beauty marks, and all! And so, I did not change anything.

3) Building on my two previous points, I realized that in this moment I did not necessarily want to react to the Torah text in the way that I did when I wrote this midrash. There was a big part of me that wanted to write a new commentary simply because I wanted to focus on different issues in the story of Nadav and Avihu. However, this again points to the reality that in each moment our reaction differs based on who and where we are in that moment. But rather than judge my previous commentary as "bad" because it didn't fit where I was in this moment, I was able to accept it as indicative of where I "was" when I wrote it. Again, this is neither bad nor good ... it simply is what it is.

4) Finally, in re-reading the midrash I realized that Nadav and Avihu (and the readers of the midrash) can learn another important lesson from what occurred. For perhaps what Nadav and Avihu did that caused them to be burned up was not simply innovating before their time. Rather, it was simply not being "in their time." In other words, Nadav and Avihu were so enthralled by the past (what they had witnessed when the fire came down from heaven and consumed the sacrifice) that they immediately began to think about how they could recreate it in the future.

They were ignoring what was happening in the present moment. It was only when God froze the scene that they found themselves living in the moment. They were unable to do this without divine intervention, just as so many of us are unable to live in the moment without connecting with the Divine in our lives. Reinterpreting the text this way, perhaps the lesson is not only that we needed to wait and understand the tradition before we began to innovated, but that we need to stop and become aware of our experience of the present rather than focusing on recreating the past by focusing on creating a new future. Perhaps this is stretching it a little, but it is an idea ... at least for this moment!
Shabbat Shalom!

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