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The Danger of Unbridled Religious Passion
After many months of construction - and many parshiyot devoted to its narrative - the Mishkan is finally dedicated and made operational in Parashat Shmini. On the eighth and final day of the inauguration, Moshe introduces the final series of sacrifices to the Children of Israel with the declaration that, if they are properly brought, "the Glory of the Lord will appear " (Vayikra, 9:6). And when the ritual is completed, we are told that, in fact, "the Glory of God appeared to the People. And a fire went forth from before God and it consumed on the altar the olah, the burnt offering, and the fats, and the entire nation saw and they rejoiced and they fell on their faces" (Vayikra, 9:23-24).
Amidst this direct manifestation of God's presence and the rejoicing of the people, Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon, brought their own sacrifice, an offering of incense which was "a foreign fire, one that God had not commanded them" (Vayikra, 10:1). This time, when a "fire went forth from before God," it did not consume the sacrifice but those who brought it: "and it consumed them, and they died before the Lord" (Vayikra, 10:2).
While the midrash suggests a number of reasons why Nadav and Avihu were punished, a simple explanation is stated in the text itself: they drew near with a sacrifice that they had not been commanded to bring. The issue is not the violation of God's command per se or its converse - performing a non-commanded religious act. Rather, it is the much more specific concern of how one draws close to God. This can be understood as a natural result of the metaphysical reality of God's presence. The Torah describes God as a "consuming fire." God is the life-force of the universe; God is infinite power. When approached correctly, fire is brought forth that will consume the sacrifices and bring good to the world. When approach incorrectly or in unregulated ways, the fire brought forth will destroy people and bring tragedy to the world. This can be compared to an electricity-generating power station, with signs warning, "Danger! High Voltage!" Channeled properly, the electricity can light up an entire city. Handled improperly, it can be fatal.
It is for this reason that wherever and whenever the aron, the ark that housed the tablets, is handled incorrectly, tragedy immediately ensues. Thus, we read in the haftorah that when Uzah makes an innocent mistake and grabs onto the aron to prevent it from falling, he is immediately stricken dead by God (Shmuel II, 6:7). Such is the power of God's presence and of the aron, the location of the presence, that, if handled incorrectly, it will cause death.
This approach, while true to the text, still does not provide a satisfying religious explanation. We might react as King David did and be "angered that God had broken forth against Uzah," and we might try to understand how the punishment makes sense on a religious or moral level (Shmuel II, 6:8).
I believe that the deeper significance of what happened to Nadav and Avihu is the need to strike the proper and delicate balance between religious fervor and passion, and between regulation and limits. Clearly Nadav and Avihu were so moved by the manifestation of God's presence that they felt a powerful religious need to draw close to it, to bring their own sacrifice of incense. They acted on their fervor without reflecting or pausing to assess if what they were doing was proper. Religious passion can be a powerful good, but it can also be extremely dangerous. When people act on their unregulated religious passions, they tend to feel that their religious actions are self-justifying. "If this is how my religious passion propels me to act, then it is a religious act; it is good. If this gets me closer to God - in my mind - then it is good." This "ends justify the means" and "if it feels right it is right" attitude is antithetical to a classical Jewish approach. And we only have to look at the world around us and the atrocities that are perpetrated in the name of religion to recognize that unbridled religious passion can be very bad indeed; it can even be evil.
What, then, is the proper balance between passion and rules and regulations? According to the Torah, it is to first follow the rules, to first ensure that one's actions are in accord to what "God has commanded." When the people did what God had commanded, the fire consumed the sacrifices. When Nadav and Avihu brought an offering that "God had not commanded," the fire consumed them. Once the rules are being followed one can bring all of his or her passions to the experience: "And the people saw and rejoiced and fell on their faces." The mistake is to focus on the passion first. When one does this, the rules are violated, and the act is no longer a religious act but a dangerous one, one that can bring destruction.
This is why immediately after the death of Nadav and Avihu the Torah commands against serving God while intoxicated. For many, becoming intoxicated is an important means to attaining a state of religious ecstasy. However, for the Torah, it puts passion and experience above rules and responsibility. Approaching God while intoxicated will bring death. Rather, the Kohanim's prime responsibility is to not blur the boundaries but to set them. They must be sober so they can "distinguish between the holy and the profane, and between the ritually pure and the impure" (Vayikra, 10:10). From Levi's actions in defense of God's honor at Har Sinai, to Pinchas' acting zealously for God, Eliyahu jealously defending God's honor, and Matityahu's revolt against the Seleucids and the Hellenizers, the Kohanim excelled at religious passion. The Torah had to rein this in and redirect it, making their first and primary responsibility to guard the Mishkan, to keep the impure out and to set the boundaries between what is and is not acceptable.
It is on this note that the parasha ends. First by differentiating between the pure (i.e., kosher) and impure (i.e., non-kosher) animals, and finally, by underscoring that this setting of boundaries is the responsibility not just of the Kohanim but of every one of us. "And to distinguish between the impure and the pure, and between the animal that may be eaten and the one which may not be eaten" (Vayikra, 11:47).
Our challenge today is that we have learned this lesson perhaps too well. We have so focused our religious experience on the rules and regulations, on halakha and all of its details, that we have almost completely lost touch with any sense of religious passion. If there is no religious passion, then our religious life becomes a simple life of observance, it becomes lifeless, antiseptic, and anemic. Part of the reason for this is that we have not prioritized passion as a religious value in the home, in the synagogue, or in the schools. But there is another reason. We do not experience God as directly as people had in the past. When one could experience God's presence, when a fire could come down from the heavens, it was easier not just to believe, but to experience God. This was a central part of the function of the Mishkan - to create a tangible sense of God's presence. Today, we rationally and philosophically shy away from thinking of or experiencing God's presence as something to be felt in this world, and so we are less equipped to have tangible religious experiences. Instead, we live a life of halakha.
If I had to pick between the two, I would pick the passionless religious experience that is guided by law, halakha, and regulation. This ultimately produces right actions and good in the world. In contrast, as we know too well, a religious experience which is driven by passion can lead to terrible atrocities. But we shouldn't have to pick. We have been so good at establishing the rule of law, the rule of halakha, that we can stand to reintroduce a little religious passion into our lives. In our relationship with God, we have truly been married a long time, but I still want there to be some spark in the relationship. I want to get excited, and I want us as a people to get excited, to get passionate, to have a drive to serve God and to bring God into the world. We need to ensure that the rules remain primary, and to work together to bring some passion into our religious lives, Let us learn how to "rejoice and fall on our faces."
Revised from a piece that originally appeared in 2014.