Our parsha this week describes the tragic death of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, who were consumed by a heavenly fire for inappropriate offerings. The text is vague as to what they did wrong and why God reacted so strongly. It says:
Nadav and Avihu took their trays and “put in them fire; they placed on it incense; they brought near before Adonai fire, strange fire, that He did not command them. Fire came out from before Adonai; it consumed them; they died before Adonai.”
Some commentators attempt to view their transgression benignly and state that they did wrong out of enthusiasm. But then Hashem’s response seems to be over the top. Others note that immediately after this incident God tells Moshe and Aharon that priests should not come to do service intoxicated and so come conjecture that they made the offering while drunk. Moshe also instructs the priests not to enter service in an unkempt hair or clothes, so some conjecture that this was the cause. Yet others note that the text tells us that Nadav and Avihu did not have children and therefore they were killed for failing to obey the mitzvah of having children. This one seems to be a bit of a stretch to me.
The majority of commentators point to the fact that it was the nature of the fire, as it is called “strange fire”. Rashbam points out that they should not have brought fire at all since the incense was meant to be consumed from heaven. Abarbanel argues that it wasn’t the fire at all, but the fact they did it. He points out that the text says that they died when they drew near to Hashem, but nothing about the fire. Therefore, he concludes, Aharon, their father, was the only one meant to make the offering.
I would like to look a little bit more at the argument that they did it out of enthusiasm. In their zeal they did not operate within the proper procedures. But if they were judged so harshly by God for doing this, why do others not receive the same punishment. For example, Moshe smashes the tablets, written by the very hand of God, upon seeing the people cavorting around the golden calf. Why was he not condemned for this spontaneous act of zeal?
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks argues that it is because they had two very different roles. Moshe was a prophet, not a priest. Prophets act with spontaneity in reaction to the circumstances. When the people are sinning, they bring Hashem’s warnings and promises of punishment. When they are suffering under such punishments, they bring Hashem’s words of consolation and promises of redemption. Their role requires them to speak and act on the fly due to the circumstances. Priests, however, are meant to carry out the detailed sacrificial duties as outlined by God. Therefore, it was inappropriate for them to deviate from prescribed procedures.
This speaks to the twin concepts of Keva and Kavannah that we have often discussed. Keva is order, Kavannah is intention, devotion, and spontaneity. The priestly and prophetic roles point to both of these aspects. The priests embody Keva in their structured, routine duties. Prophets embody Kavannah in their spontaneous response to evolving circumstances in their devotion to Hashem and the people.
One place where we see this dichotomy is with the Amidah, recited three times daily. Our Sages disputed whether these prayers, or prayers in general, should be established or not. Some argued for spontaneity and said that there should be no structure and people should pray from their hearts. Others insisted that the people should recite structured prayers. Our tradition came up with a beautiful solution to this. We recite the Amidah twice. The silent Amidah allows room for personal prayers and spontaneity, while the Reader’s Repetition is simply the structured prayers.
The established times for prayer three times daily expresses this as well. Some argue that these were established by the Patriarchs, Avraham, Yitzak, and Yaakov. Others argue that they are connected to the three periods of activity in the Temple; the morning sacrifices, afternoon sacrifices, and the burning of remaining sacrifices in the evening. If established by the Patriarchs, then daily prayer could be seen as prophetic, and therefore expresses Kavannah. If connected to the sacrifices, then daily prayer is priestly and therefore expresses Keva.
Yeshua came into this earth primarily as a prophet. He called people back to Hashem. He spoke words of consolation to the poor, the downtrodden, and the sinners. He spoke words of condemnation to the authorities who were distorting the true meaning of Torah.
But after his death and resurrection, he has become our Kohen Gadol, our Heavenly High Priest, who intercedes for us. Rav Shaul says in Romans 8:
“So who will bring a charge against God’s chosen people?... Certainly not Messiah Yeshua, who died and — more than that — has been raised, is at the right hand of God and is actually pleading on our behalf!”
The author of Hebrews states in chapter 7:
“...he is totally able to deliver those who approach God through him; since he is alive forever and thus forever able to intercede on their behalf.”
We can see Yeshua as davening Shacharit, Mincha, and Maariv in the Heavenly Temple, but bringing himself as the sacrifice on behalf of Israel and the world. Just as our prayers join with the service in the Temple in Jerusalem, they also join with Yeshua’s prayers in that Heavenly Temple.
Our world is suffering right now, as it always has, with the destruction of the climate, racism, bigotry, greed, and the like. It has become commonplace today for people to mock people of faith for just praying for situations and not taking action. This is somewhat justified. We need to do both. We need to act and speak, but also pray. We need to take up the mantles of both prophet and priest.
In the midst of this, we, too, have this dual role of prophet and priest. It is incumbent upon us as Jewish followers of Messiah Yeshua to bring words of comfort to the afflicted, to those who are downtrodden through poverty, racism, and bigotry. And we are to speak words of condemnation to those who perpetuate such evils in our society. Just a few days ago we observed Yom HaShoah, the commemoration of the millions killed by the Nazi genocide. We should use our grief and do honor to the dead, by speaking out against all genocides currently happening. China is committing this evil right now against the Uyghur muslims.
We also have a priestly function. Our daily prayers of Shacharit, Mincha, and Maariv, are an opportunity for us to intercede on behalf of this unredeemed world. We join our prayers to Yeshua’s as we together climb into Hashem’s lap and mourn for the devastation that plagues us now and has been rampant throughout the centuries.
May we take up the mantles of both prophet and priest.
May we speak out and act in ways that bring justice into our world.
May we also pray daily for God’s mercy and intervention on behalf of our unredeemed world.
And thereby join in our Messiah’s two-fold mission.