The Sad but Vital Contemporary Lesson of Nadav and Abihu

“And Nadav and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, … offered strange fire before the Eternal one, which God had not commanded them. And there came forth fire from before the Eternal One and devoured them, and they died before God. (Leviticus 10:1-2)

We wring our hands over the sad fate of Nadav and Abihu.

Our hearts break for Aaron, their father.

Rabbis and Commentators of all religious stripes turn themselves into pretzels trying to interpret this sad story. It is easy to get caught up in their esoteric explanations of how they crossed the line in their striving for holiness so that they left their mundane bodies behind, and they died.

But what do we have to say to the kid or adult reading this story and asking, “Does it have a message for me?

Indeed it does.

The account of their death is followed by this strong command: “Drink no wine nor strong drink, you or your children with you when you go into the Tent of Meeting, so that you do not die.” (Leviticus 10:9)

An automobile is similar to the Tent of Meeting where Nadav and Abihu died suddenly because a motor vehicle is a place where one wrong move on your part or on the part of another can end your life in an instant.

Sometimes things happen on the road that we cannot control. For instance, a foolish decision by another driver can take your life. That is a risk we take every time we get behind the wheel. It is a calculated risk whose odds we choose to accept.

But there is another risk that we should never choose to accept. Driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Some commentaries, noting the proximity of the death of Aaron and Elisheva’s sons with the warning not to drink in the holy precinct assume that Nadav and Abihu were drinking and that caused their fatal accident. If we allow this possibility, and I think we should, then the passage, far from being a comment on God’s capricious cruelty, as some would have it, is a vital warning to all of us.

Don’t drink and drive!

Sometimes in our search for clever interpretations of biblical texts, we overlook a lesson staring us right in the face. The sad story of Nadav and Abihu offers us such a lesson. We fail to heed it at our own peril.

63 Years Ago Today

63 years ago today, March 21, 1959, the Cantor chanted my Hebrew name and, on legs that felt like rubber, I climbed the steps to the bima at Temple Sharey Tefilo in my native East Orange, NJ to read from the Torah for the very first time as a Bar Mitzvah.

It was an overpoweringly scary and yet very spiritual moment for me. Rabbi Avraham Soltes, of blessed memory, stood on my right and placed his strong left hand on my shoulder. I read and translated each line as I went along, Leviticus 5:17-26.

Back then B’nai Mitzvah students in our congregation did not give speeches, they did not conduct the whole service, they did not read the entire Torah portion. The focus of the ceremony was on reading and understanding the message of the Torah portion, I only read my Haftarah from the Book of Isaiah in English.

When I finished both readings and their accompanying blessings, the rabbi and I stood at his lectern, and he asked me questions. He asked me to recite the Ten Commandments, and then he asked me to share my favorite Psalm. I chose Psalm 61 and especially the aspiration of the verse, “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I” (Psalm 61, verse 3).

The lessons of my Torah portion remain with me to this day. The seemingly esoteric portion about sacrifices teaches me and all of us two vital contemporary lessons:

  1. Ignorance of the law is no excuse for violating it.
  2. In crimes that do not involve violence, victim compensation is the best form of redress.

Without question, kids today “do more” at their Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremonies than I did, but I wonder, do they remember the lessons of their Torah portion years later? Do they even know what a Psalm is let alone have a favorite? More importantly, will they look back on their big day as I do on mine, as one of the most important days in my entire life?