“Authentic Religious Ecstasy”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemini, we read of the tragic deaths of Aaron’s elder sons, Nadav and Abihu.

When describing their deaths, the Torah states in Leviticus 10:1, “Va’yik’chu v’nai Aharon, Nadav va’Aveehu, eesh mach’tah’toh, vah’yit’noo vah’hain aish, vah’yah’see’moo ah’leh’ha k’toh’ret, vah’yahk’ree’voo lif’nay Ha’shem, aish zara, ah’sher lo tzee’vah oh’tahm,” The sons of Aaron, Nadav and Abihu, each took his fire-pan, put fire in them and placed incense upon it, and brought before the L-rd an alien fire that He had not commanded them. Immediately, a fire came forth from before the L-rd and consumed Nadav and Abihu, and they died before the L-rd.

As we have noted in previous parasha studies (Shemini 5771-2011), the day on which Nadav and Abihu died was intended to have been the greatest day of Aaron’s life. The Mishkan, the Tabernacle, had been completed and was to be inaugurated into holiness together with Aaron and his sons. Instead, Aaron suffered the profound loss of his two sons.

In their attempts to identify what exactly was the sin of Aaron’s sons that warranted their deaths, the commentators offer a host of reasons. The Sifra (a halachic Midrash to Leviticus) states that Nadav and Abihu’s violation was that they brought their own incense into the Holy of Holies, where even the High Priest is permitted to enter only on Yom Kippur.

The Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachya state that the sin of Aaron’s sons was not that they violated the sanctity of the Holy of Holies, but that they brought an unauthorized incense offering on the Inner Altar. The Sifra also acknowledges that Nadav and Abihu were punished despite their noble intentions. The Sifra suggests that they brought the extra incense offering to reciprocate for G-d’s extraordinary display of love that He had showered upon the people of Israel by sending the heavenly fire to consume the offerings (Leviticus 9:24).

The Rashbam maintains that, despite the fact that the incense and fire would eventually be brought in the Tabernacle every day, the sons of Aaron sinned by “jumping the gun,” and bringing incense and fire, that had not yet been authorized.

In his important volume, Darosh Darash Yosef, Discourses of Rabbi Joseph Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik, Rabbi Avishai C. David cites Rabbi Soloveitchik, who offers a number of novel insights into the deaths of Nadav and Abihu. Why, asks Rabbi Soloveitchik, were they killed so suddenly, after all, it is well known that one of the Al-mighty’s Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, is that He is slow to anger?

But the Al-mighty is not always long to anger. When Moses, in Exodus 4:24-26, failed to circumcise his son, G-d encountered him and sought to kill him, without any indication of moderation. Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests that, with ordinary people, G-d is slow to anger. However, when one reaches the status of Jewish leadership, as Nadav and Abihu did, the yardstick changes, and punishment is swift and instant.

Regarding the nature of the sin of Nadav and Abihu, Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests that the answer may be found by closely examining the verse itself. Leviticus 10:1 states, “And they brought before the L-rd an alien fire that He had not commanded them.” Rabbi Soloveitchik notes that although Nadav and Abihu brought the identical incense offering that their father, Aaron, had brought, Aaron was obeying G-d’s will, while Nadav and Abihu defied G-d by performing an action that had not been commanded.

Rabbi Soloveitchik keenly distinguishes between two approaches to religious observance. One approach is religious Divine service marked by strict guidelines and discipline. The other is ceremonial experience. Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests that, in order to achieve total fulfillment when one performs a mitzvah, the mitzvah must always be translated into experiential terms. The Torah bids Jews to experience joy and satisfaction when performing mitzvot. Thus, a Jew fasts on Yom Kippur because G-d commanded it, but the result of this obedience to G-d should be ecstatic and transformative.

Since the performance of mitzvot is mandated, the word “V’tzee’vah’noo,” indicating that one is commanded by G-d to perform the mitzvah, is always emphasized in the blessing before performing a mitzvah. A mitzvah is always performed as an absolute surrender to G-d’s will. However, to achieve true fulfillment of mitzvot, one must progress from the robotic performance of mitzvot (because one is commanded to do so) to experiencing profound spiritual ecstasy that encompasses the Jew’s entire being.

While Jews are commanded to pray in a minyan each morning, no matter how hot, cold, or inconvenient, to eat unleavened matzah on Passover, and to fast on Yom Kippur as an act of total surrender to the will of G-d, the religionist must always progress and move toward what Rabbi Soloveitchik calls “joyful catharsis.” True fulfillment consists of obedience to G-d’s command and discovering the spiritual treasures that are inherent in every command.

Unfortunately, there are those who attempt to falsify this “joyful catharsis” by using drugs and alcohol, and other deceptive means, creating artificial feelings of euphoria, which often mask disappointment and disillusion. This, too, was the primary sin of Nadav and Abihu, who, despite not being commanded to bring the fire or the incense, hoped to create an artificial euphoria.

Rabbi Soloveitchik points out the difference between genuine religious ecstasy and false euphoria. The Tabernacle was commanded to be built, which is why the phrase, “Ah’sher tzee’vah Hashem et Moshe,” as G-d commanded Moses (Exodus 40), recurs throughout the narrative describing the building of the Tabernacle. On the other hand, the construction of the Golden Calf was not commanded and is therefore regarded as an act of rebellion and idolatry.

Many religionists yearn for religious ecstasy. But religious ecstasy must stem from genuine and authentic modes that the Al-mighty has designated in His Torah. Any other means reduces G-d’s Torah to “new-age” spiritualism, creating a new Torah, and perhaps even a new G-d, in order to satisfy the worshiper’s presumed religious needs.

The decisive lesson emanating from Nadav and Avihu’s misguided attempt to achieve religious ecstasy is that true religious experiences are those experiences that are achieved through structure and form, rather than fantasy and illusion.

May the Al-mighty allow us all to merit many moments of true religious experiences in our lives, experiences that draw us closer to the Al-mighty through His Divine love and caring.

May you be blessed.

Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, is observed this year on Sunday night April 7th, and all day Monday April 8th, 2013.