Parashat Sh'mini begins with the induction of the priests, continues with the disaster that strikes Aaron’s sons and ends with a detailed list of kosher animals. Is there an internal connection between the list and the previous chapter? Wait and see.
“Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his censer, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered alien fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died before the Lord.”
Difficult verses, whose interpretations can be classified into two main categories. Some try to clarify what exactly “strange fire” means. Others answer the question, “What was the sin of Nadav and Avihu?” even though there is a clear answer in the text, “They offered alien fire.” The discussion is shifted in completely different directions by claiming that Nadav and Avihu were drunk or jealous of Moses and Aaron, or did not agree to start a family etc.
What makes a commentator wander so far from the text? One possibility is that Nadav and Avihu are only a starting point for a preacher who wants to talk about a burning issue in his community. Reasonable, but there is another possibility, that doesn’t contradict the first: they found it difficult to deal with the non-proportional punishment, with the possibility that ritual sin – that isn’t even idolatrous – can be so severe that it leads to death.
Following Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (“Netziv,” late 19th century) I want to make a suggestion that combines these two directions: he taught that Nadav and Avihu, “Entered fired with enthusiastic love for God, but Torah tells us: the love of God is precious in God’s eyes, but not in a way which was not commanded.” Their intense devotion was their sin.
Yes, religiosity can be overly excessive. In Israel 2013, at the end of Passover, there is no need to describe the extremes to which religion can go and the sacrifices it exacts. I dare not guess what the Netziv might say...
Instead, I want to continue with the laws of kashrut and the following sections of Leviticus that refer to sexual behavior. At first glance, these laws do nothing more than ban foods, restrain sexuality and limit human enjoyment. But, in the spirit of the Netziv’s warning against excessive devotion, they can also be understood as permissive rather than restrictive, reining in not only permissiveness but also abstinence. Torah teaches us that there is value in restraining our passions, but also rejects the impulse to suppress them entirely.
Many cultures and religions strive to stifle the appetite for food or sex or both. Apparently the two are related. In a fascinating article, “Is Food the New Sex?” Mary Eberstadt of the Hoover Institution of Stanford University describes the 180° switch in the behavior patterns of younger adults in the U.S. today. They grew up in an atmosphere of sexual freedom where the only limitation – beyond personal taste – is the prohibition against hurting others. Except for abuse and cheating, anything goes. Yet among this generation, there is a growing culture of complex restrictions on food, with concern for every detail and ingredient, a new set of moral imperatives.
To which the Torah would say, “A plague on both your houses!” Be neither ascetic nor unbridled. Do everything in good measure. Just as the life of the soul and spirit are good, so the life of the body is good. Eat delicacies and drink your fill, take delight in your spouse, but always seek the golden mean. The Torah, Jewish law and broader Jewish tradition offer many details that serve as signposts on our way to finding balance. But ultimately every individual, couple, family and community must forge its own path using logic, reason and faith. How will we recognize the right path? How will we know we have reached our destination or found the appropriate way? That’s the real challenge. There is a reason the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas called Judaism a “religion for adults,” and included an essay by that name in a collection entitled “Difficult Freedom.”
We left Egypt, and have started the road to freedom, to adulthood. I hope and pray we do not lose ourselves and our independence in the quicksand of simple answers, or by childishly following false Messiahs.