In Shemini, the Torah portion read the world over this week — ending with Earth Day this Shabbat — Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, are instantly consumed by God’s fire for a seemingly innocuous error as they attempt to perform the ritual of the mishkan. Readers of the text are often stunned by the dramatic arbitrariness of this act — the black and whiteness of God’s behavior, God’s apparent lack of compassion and unwillingness to give the boys a second chance. Many readers can’t stand a God like this and they try to rationalize God’s behavior. The message that God seems to be sending is: Behave perfectly — do exactly as I say — or die.
The incident is all the more jarring, since we’ve spent the last week celebrating the freedom of Passover, ecstatically chanting hallelujah and euphorically greeting the spring after a long, cold and demanding winter. The biblical cycle echoes the seasonal one: The Israelites have endured their own kind of winter — attending to countless and exhausting details as they built God’s house, the mishkan — and at long last everyone is ready to let their hair down and rejoice.
But there will be no rejoicing, at least not now. Nadav and Avihu, the two youthful priests, are dead.
What are we to make of this story? Why do Nadav and Avihu die?
All the text tells us is that they offered an alien fire, which God had not commanded them to do. Many commentators explore a myriad of possibilities: Maybe they were drunk or arrogant or too passionate in their worship. The Bible tells us one thing for sure: They did something that God did not decree; they acted on their own initiative, not God’s.
What interests me in this incident is the Bible’s understanding of God. It seems to me that many readers of the text can only accept a concept of God that is merciful, caring, compassionate — a larger than life, utterly benevolent entity — modeled on a human image.
However, many people tend to forget that the biblical God presents God’s self to us in two paradigmatic ways, represented by two names: Adonai and Elohim. Adonai is compassionate energy. Adonai is the One who walked and talked with Adam in the garden; the One who promised land and heirs to the Israelite ancestors; the One who heard the people’s cries in Egypt, intervened on their behalf and led them out of that narrow place into freedom. Adonai is the One who cares for the widow and the orphan and the stranger; the One who cares for the Jews.
Adonai’s complement is Elohim. Elohim is dispassionate energy. Elohim is the God of nature, of creation, of the structure of the universe. Elohim is the One who keeps the stars and planets orbiting in their courses and ensures they never fall from the sky; the One who holds the earth secure so that, as the psalmist says, it doesn’t totter; the One who promises that the dawn follows night and that harvest follows seedtime. Elohim is the One who maintains the atmosphere in perfect equilibrium and maintains our physiologic systems in perfect homeostasis — enabling us and all creatures to live. The face of God that we encounter this week is Elohim, the dispassionate universal One, whose actions are beyond all human comprehension.
Over the last weeks, the Bible has been preoccupied with the technicalities and specifications of building a Mishkan, a space in which God could dwell — and the preparations for worship in it. Throughout this period, Scripture has been hyper-focused on the materials, form, color, placement, proportions, size, symmetry, sequencing and order of this human creation. The ancient rabbis said that in building the Mishkan, the Israelites were imitating God’s creation of the world. The rigorous and exacting work of building a home in which God could dwell is a reminder of Elohim’s meticulous attention to detail in creating an earthly home in which people and creatures could dwell. God laid out the dimensions of the world — the waters, the air and the earth, attentive to the materials, structure, chemistry, physics and generative ability; and then hung the stars and planets in the sky and animated the habitats with birds, fish, four-legged creatures and people, each perfectly adapted to its assigned habitat. The universe Elohim created was inscribed with order. A miniscule change in chemistry, physics or biology, would reverberate throughout the creation, potentially wreaking havoc and destroying life.
Here’s what I suggest we are being taught today: The priests were supposed to follow the prescribed rules of the ritual, exactly as God ordained it — like clockwork, because the ritual was a simulation of God’s ordering of creation.
Those of you who remember the television series “House of Cards” will recall four Tibetan Buddhist monks engaged in the creation of an exquisite sand drawing. Using funnels and scrapers, the monks carefully and methodically, with rapt attention to their purpose, set each grain of sand in place to create an intricately designed, color-laden mandala. The Israelite priests, like the monks, are engaged in acts of world-building or world-maintaining. Their scripted ritual procedures, on a fundamental energetic level, help insure the stability and order of the world against chaos and unraveling.
All life depends on boundaries. We are alive today because of the work of our cell membranes, our arteries, our alveoli, our skin.
Since the ritual of the Mishkan mimics the biological and physical universe — a perfectly ordered patterned hierarchical system — it was incumbent upon the priests to restrain their own egos and personalities, their own desires, and to accommodate themselves to the prescribed order of the ritual. The life of a priest requires humility, obedience and silent dedication. Elohim cannot tolerate human initiative or spontaneity when it comes to the act of maintaining the holy spiritual center of the cosmos. The life of the world is at stake.
From Elohim’s perspective, the daily enactment of the ritual has consequences that pulsate throughout the entire universe. That’s why God went to such great lengths to teach the priests how to perform the ritual in the first place. Elohim must take the lives of Nadav and Avihu, otherwise God’s carefully constructed universe would collapse.
Elohim, the God of the universe, is distant and does not demonstrate love in a way that people typically recognize or may be comfortable with. Indeed Elohim is more interested in the cosmos and the whole of creation than with individuals. Ultimately the Mishkan ritual is about the preciousness of all of creation — so precious that God, through God’s fire, must consume those individuals who constitute a threat to the continuity of the ecological order. Elohim’s love comes in the form of the creation itself — the air we breathe, the water we drink, the land that grows our food, the extraordinary diversity of creatures, the riot of color and sound and form, the miraculous fact that life exists at all.
Rabbi Ellen Bernstein is the founder of the Jewish environmental organization Shomrei Adamah.