Nadav and Avihu's 'strange fire'
by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
EFRAT, Israel - One of the most problematic incidents in the entire Bible is the traumatic death of Aaron's two sons, Nadav and Avihu, precisely at the zenith of the dedication of the Sanctuary that was to be the province of the High Priest, Aaron.
This week's Torah reading describes the context of the tragedy, which only increases our perplexity: "And Moses and Aaron entered the Tent of Meeting, and they went out and blessed the nation; the glory of God appeared to the entire nation. And a fire came forth from before God, consuming the whole burnt offering on the altar. The entire nation saw and exulted and fell upon their faces.
"And the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, took each person his censer and placed fire in them and laid incense thereon and they sacrificed a strange fire before God which he had not commanded them. And a fire came forth from before God consuming them; and they died before the Lord." (Leviticus 9:23,24; 10:1,2)
It is apparent that they were punished. But this punishment appears to be far harsher then their crime would seem to warrant! After all, the Bible describes a moment of national ecstasy, an unexpected expression of joy and submission when the Almighty crowned the dedication of the Sanctuary by demonstrating his acceptance of the Divine service by sending a Divine fire.
The two sons of Aaron, caught up in the religious excitement of the moment, attempt to return God's gratuitous compliment by themselves offering a fire they had not been commanded to bring. They merely went beyond the requirement of the law, answering God's unexpected fire with their uncommanded fire. Even Moses comments, "This is what God has said, by my near ones shall I be sanctified." (Leviticus 10:3)
Is an act emanating from a desire to come near to God worthy of death?
I believe the mystery's solution is to be found in the expression used to describe the offering of Nadav and Avihu: a "strange fire," eish zara, reminiscent of the Hebrew avodah zara, strange service, the usual phrase for idolatry. The Bible isolates and emphasizes a unique prohibition of fire idolatry, immolating one's child to the idol Moloch, a strange and false god who demands the fire consumption of children as the manner of his devotion. At least three times, the Bible especially forbids this form of idolatry.
Initially it is to be found in the biblical portion of sexual immorality, the prohibition of giving ones seed to a strange and uncertified place (someone else's wife, one's close relatives, individuals of the same sex, animals); within this context, the Bible commands, "And you shall not give of your seed [children] to be passed over to Moloch." (Leviticus 18:21)
Barely one chapter later, the prohibition is fleshed out: "An individual who gives his seed to Moloch must be put to death É And I shall put My face against that individual and cut him off from the midst of his nation because he has given his seed to Moloch, in order to defile My Sanctuary and profane My Holy Name É." (Leviticus 20:2) A third description of this abomination appears in the last of the five Books of Moses, "Let there not be found among you one who passes over his son or daughter into fire."
Combining together the various elements involved in the three verses similar in language - "passing over one's child in fire to Moloch" - causes the Talmud to rule that the prohibition is literally sacrificing one's child in fire to the false god. (B.T. Sanhedrin 64, Ramban to Leviticus 18:21)
Apparently such an abominable act could only be performed in a moment of religious fanatic ecstasy, when one's false religious value took precedence over the life of one's innocent child.
The "strange fire" brought by Nadav and Avihu was certainly not the same; but since it too emanated from a moment of religious ecstasy, such ill-advised and uncommanded fires had to be "nipped in the bud"!
Tragically, Islamic fundamentalism has adopted precisely this abomination as a major form of its terrorist activity: educating and training their youths to blow themselves up in the fire of destructive materials in the name of Allah and with the promise of a Paradise of 72 virgins.
Indeed, these "priests" are worse than the priests of Moloch: These modern-day human sacrifices are "inspired" not only to sacrifice themselves, but also to blow up scores of innocent people along with themselves!
The 15th century scholar Rav Menahem Meiri taught that idolatry has little to do with thought - theology and has everything to do with action - morality: an idolater is one who is "immorally defiled in his deeds and ugly in his personality traits."
Islamic fundamentalism has turned Allah into Moloch (Satan), and made every mosque that preaches the doctrine of suicide bombing a hell-haven of idolatry.
This story was published in the DallasJewishWeek
on: Thursday, March 27, 2003