“Good Intentions Gone Awry”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemini, we learn of the tragic deaths of Aaron’s oldest sons, Nadav and Abihu, who were punished for bringing a strange fire upon the altar.

Ironically, the first day of Nissan was intended to be the greatest day of Aaron’s life. The newly built Tabernacle was to be consecrated and the priests (Aaron and his four sons), were to be invested into the service of the Priesthood with great fanfare.

The entire nation was summoned to congregate at the Tent of Meeting in anticipation of this great day. Moses calls out to the people, Leviticus 9:6, saying, זֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה השׁם תַּעֲשׂוּ, וְיֵרָא אֲלֵיכֶם כְּבוֹד השׁם, “This is the thing that the L-rd has commanded you to do; then the glory of the L-rd will appear to you.” Moses reassures the people that once the formal dedication ritual is concluded by Aaron and his sons, the glory of G-d will appear before them on this very day.

The Midrash, Sifra 9:6 states, that Moses advised the People of Israel that they must remove the “evil inclination” from their hearts in order to unite in reverence and in faith, to properly serve G-d. Just as G-d represents unity, so must the peoples’ service be united before G-d, so that the glory of the L-rd may appear.

The Ha’amek Davar says that these Midrashim indicate that different groups of people saw the worship of G-d from differing perspectives. Among these diverse groups was one that felt a zealous urge to cling as closely as possible to G-d. The Netziv suggests that such zealous behavior occurred several times in Jewish history. The 250 people, who offered the forbidden incense together with Korach and his cohorts, were actually of pure hearts and acted with pure intentions. Despite their good intentions, what they did was wrong in G-d’s eyes.

Therefore, Moses advised the people, before the consecration of the Tabernacle, that if they intend to demonstrate their love of G-d they must first remove the evil inclination from their hearts, and must seek to draw closer to G-d through holiness, and not in a forbidden fashion. In addition, only through a united effort will their good intentions be rewarded.

In his comments on parashat Shemini explaining the actions of Nadav and Abihu, Rabbi Shimon Schwab invoked the well-known aphorism cited in Bereishit Rabbah 55, which states, אַהֲבָה מְקַלְקֶלֶת אֶת הַשּׁוּרָה, love is blind and corrupts clear thinking. Although the commentaries have identified many reasons for Nadav and Abihu’s punishment, Rabbi Schwab suggests that they may have been punished despite their noble intentions. Apparently, Nadav and Abihu were swept away by their ardent zeal, and offered forbidden incense on the altar that had not been commanded by G-d. The Sifra 10:1 maintains that, “they [Nadav and Abihu] rejoiced when they saw the new fire come down upon the altar, and decided to add love to love,” leading them to sin.

Early in my outreach career, I had a Talmud teacher who was upset that my outreach friends and I were spending so much time reaching out to the so-called “non-committed” Jews. He said, “Some people are מְבַטֵּל תּוֹרָה, waste time from Torah study, in order to commit sins. Others, waste time from Torah study for the sake of mitzvot.” After all these years, I have still not resolved that issue in my mind.

Rabbi Schwab apparently would often advise people to be careful not to, “let their יֵצֶר הַטּוֹב [good intentions] run away with themselves.” He suggested that people must constantly examine their goals, to see that, despite their noble intentions, their passion and their zeal, that they not wind up destroying instead of building.

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat is also known as “Shabbat Parashat Parah.” It is the third of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion concerning the Red Heifer is read from Numbers 19:1-22.