The mystery of the ‘Strange Fire’

Rabbi Hyim Shafner serves Bais Abraham Congregation in University City.


This week’s Torah portion, Shemini, wraps up the eight-day inauguration ceremony of the Tabernacle and its Kohanim, the priests.  On the eighth day of the inauguration, as a coda to the process, a calf was brought on the altar and a Divine fire emerged from above to consume it.  Two of Aaron the High Priest’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, then brought: “A strange fire which God had not commanded them.” They were immediately consumed by a Divine fire, exactly as the calf proceeding them.  The two moments of Divine conflagration are described with identical biblical phrasing.  

This act was seemingly a punishment for their audacity in bringing an offering of incense, which they were not commanded to offer. Yet Moses immediately says to their father Aaron, “This is what God said, ‘among those who are closest to me I will be sanctified.’”  Rashi, the famous medieval French biblical commentator explains, “Moses said to Aaron, I knew that God’s house would be sanctified through those closest to God, I thought it would be you or I, but now I know that they (your two sons) were greater than we.”  

What does Rashi mean? Did not Aaron’s sons sin by bringing their own incense offering?  How were they holier than Moses and Aaron? Why did the sanctuary need to be sanctified through the death of those closest to God?

Until now the Divine presence had been distant from the Jewish people as a result of their sin of worshiping the golden calf.  With this first calf sacrifice brought in the Tabernacle to God, the relationship between God and the people is renewed. One can only imagine the spiritual ecstasy which resulted for people who truly cared about their relationship with God; like a loved one lost and re-found.   

Nadav and Avihu, these two sons of Aaron, were the closest to God.  They felt God’s absence more than anyone else.  When God was reunited with the Jewish people through this first sacrifice of a calf in the Tabernacle, they were so ecstatic they immediately lunged for the Divine and were consumed by a Divine fire, like  sacrifices themselves.  Coming too close, too fast to the spiritual can mean to lose one’s bearings on the physical plane. The Tabernacle which followed as a result of the Jewish people’s worship of the golden calf, is a place in which worshiping God must be well orchestrated, in which the fixed, well controlled  worship of God must overpower the spontaneous ecstatic worship of God. For, the experience of the golden calf episode required such precautions.

Aaron’s children, who are so close to God, are taken up with the newfound revelation of God and can not help but lunge for the Divine, to become one in a ecstasy of spirituality, throwing all caution to the wind.  But in the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf, there is no longer room for such an approach — all must be carefully orchestrated within the tabernacle.  The death of Nadav and Avihu is not a punishment for disobeying God but a natural consequence of proximity to the powerful Divine.  They are holier than Moses and Aaron, and indeed this leads to their separation from their physical beings and their union with the Divine.  

May we all merit to both reside within the physical world, to retain the structure of worship, and at the same time achieve intimacy with the Divine and the spontaneity of spiritual inspiration.  

Shabbat Shalom.