STRANGE FIRE – “Shmini” – Lev. 9-11 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
This week, along with detailed instructions for offering sacrifices, we will read the story of the tragic and mystifying death of Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu. They were consumed by fire, we are told. But it was a fatal flash of fire from within, like a stroke of lightning. Their clothes were not burned. All this sudden shock took place because they brought to the Tabernacle a “strange fire,” rather than the holy flame they were expected to use. Why did this happen? And what lesson can we learn from the strange fire?
Our rabbis famously linked this episode to the very next message that Aaron receives from On High: “Drink no wine or liquor, neither you no your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting.” Did Nadab and Abihu dare to officiate while drunk? True, to this day, you might see Cohanim bless the people at a different time on Simhat Torah, doing so during the Shaharit morning service rather than during Musaf which comes after the Torah reading, since many congregations give a drink to each member who is called to the Torah to celebrate Simhat Torah. So perhaps Nadab and Abihu got careless because they were tipsy?
Another commentary charges them with insubordination. Looking at their father and their uncle as over-the-hill, they grumble “When will these old men die, so we can lead the people?” So perhaps their attitude prompted them to bring strange fire.
Variant opinions and questionable policies are sometimes cited as forms of Strange Fire. If officiants choose or change traditional standards of Jewish practice, are they jeopardizing themselves and their followers? Do they dilute religion with politics? Do they accept behavior prohibited by the Torah? Do they ask Divine blessing on interfaith ceremonies or on sexual perversion? Or do they condone breaking the Sabbath or eating pork? Some or all of these policies can be called Strange Fire.
While certainly such differences cause religious infighting among us, perhaps the bottom line is a matter of individual choice. But that choice must have a basis in knowledge, not what’s trendy but what’s true. What I know and believe is wrong, must be discarded as Strange Fire. What I know and believe is right, can be my way to true worship.
Nadab and Abihu still have a lot to teach us.