A strange episode is used to explain why, according to Jewish tradition, weddings are not scheduled during this time of the year, the Omer period between Passover and Shavuot:
In Talmudic times 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died during this period “for not showing respect to one another” (Talmud Yevamot 62b). We, therefore, honor this “mourning period” by avoiding celebrations that can be scheduled at other times (Tur and Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 493:1).
How is it possible that such great students of such a great master should stoop to not respecting each other?! Especially considering that their teacher, Rabbi Akiva, taught that “love your fellow like yourself” is a “great fundamental in Torah”!
Their fate is equally, if not even more, disturbing: Disrespect is awful. But why did it cause them to all die? Isn’t that a harsh punishment for this crime?
And above all, why are we told about this sad story and asked to commemorate it by refraining from marriage and other celebrations? The past is the past; why the need to dwell on it?
The opening of this week’s Torah portion concludes a similarly mysterious event that took place three chapters back:
After the Sanctuary was finished, the Torah tells us, the two elder sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, “offered a strange fire before G-d, which He had not commanded.” The result: “A fire went out from G-d and consumed them, and they died before G-d.”
Now, in this week’s portion, following the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, G-d specifically commands that their example should not be repeated: “And G-d spoke to Moses, after the death of Aaron’s two sons, who came close to G-d and died… Speak to Aaron your brother that he [be careful to] not come at all times into the Holy… so that he not die… [but] with this shall Aaron come into the holy place” (Leviticus 16:1-2), and the Torah continues with the conditions on how to enter the Holy of Holies. Rashi explains that this command comes immediately after the statement of the death of Aaron’s sons in order to warn him that his service of G-d should not be like that of his sons.
What lies behind Nadav and Avihu’s actions? Did they behave properly or not? On the one hand, they were clearly great men who “came close to G-d;” on the other hand, “they died” because they “offered a strange fire before G-d, which He had not commanded.” And G-d is warning Aaron not to behave like them.
And what is the meaning of the “strange fire” that they offered?
Above all, if Aaron’s sons behaved wrongly, why is it important to document their sad story which presents them in a negative light?
The key to the story lies in the word “fire.”
Fire is passion. All passion comes from the fire of the soul, “the soul of man is the fire of G-d.” Like a flame, a soul always reaches upward, licking the air in its search for transcendence, only to be restrained by the wick grounding the flame to the earth. The soul’s fire wants to defy the confines of life; the free spirit wants to soar ever higher, always reaching for the heavens.
Like fire, the spirit ablaze cannot tolerate the mediocrity and monotony of the inanimate “wick” of materialism. Its passion knows no limits as it craves for the beyond.
But, just as fire can be the source of our greatest strength, the fire of the soul, like any fire, can also be the cause of great destruction.
Therein resides the story of Nadav and Avihu, two extraordinary souls:
When the holy Sanctuary was finished Aaron’s sons, deeply spiritual individuals, were drawn to enter the holiest sanctum on earth. They wanted to bask in the ecstasy of the Temple’s pure spirit.
Indeed, the behavior of Aaron’s two sons was not a sin; it was an act of great sanctification, as Moses tells Aaron immediately following the tragedy: “This is what G-d spoke, saying: ‘I shall be sanctified by those who are close to Me.’” The sages explain: Moses said, “Aaron, my brother, I knew that the Sanctuary would be sanctified by those who were beloved and close to G-d. When G-d said ‘I shall be sanctified by those close to Me,’ I thought it referred to me or you; now I see that they – Nadav and Avihu – are greater then both of us.”
Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar (the Ohr Hachaim) explains that their death was “by Divine ‘kiss,’ like that experienced by the perfectly righteous. Only [the problem was that] the righteous die when the Divine ‘kiss’ approaches them, while they died by their approaching it…. Although they sensed their own demise, that did not prevent them from drawing near [to G-d] in attachment, delight, delectability, fellowship, love, kiss and sweetness, to the point that their souls ceased from them.”
Nadav and Avihu’s death was a result of their profound yearning for a Divine experience. Their error was that they initiated it at their own discretion, and “selfishly” allowed the ecstasy to consume them. Their sin was not that they got close to the Divine, but that they died doing so. In a sense, they wanted it too much, so much so that they rushed into the fire and got burned in the process. Their bodies could no longer contain their souls.
Thus, the Torah says “when they came close to G-d (with such passion), and they died.” Why does the Torah add “and they died” when it has already said, “after the death of the two sons of Aaron?” Although it is healthy to divest yourself of material concerns, at the moment when you stand poised at the ultimate ecstasy of the soul, you must turn again to the work that the soul must do to transform the physical existence. Nadav and Avihu achieved the ecstasy but not the return. This was their sin and the reason for their death. They “came close to G-d and they died.” They allowed their spiritual passion to override their task of transforming the world. They escaped beyond the world and beyond life itself.
If their motivation was pure, driven by the fiery passion of the soul, why then was it called a “strange fire?”
Because, even if their intention was a good one, it ultimately was driven by their personal desire, albeit a spiritual desire, but still defined by their subjective drives. It may have begun for Divine reasons, but they allowed it to become their own personal interest, mounting to a point of intensity that it destroyed them, thus rendering the “fire” into a “strange fire,” one which “He had not commanded.” They entered on their own terms, at their own pace, at their own choosing – not on G-d’s terms.
And this was the reason that they actually ended up dying in the process. Because the same G-d that imbued us with passionate souls also commanded us to use the passion not to expire in ecstasy and escape the universe, no matter how appealing that choice may be, but to channel the passion downward and transform the material world in which we live into a Divine home. This is the purpose of the Temple: “build me a sanctuary (out of physical materials) and I will rest among you.”
Thus, the ultimate test of Aaron’s sons’ intentions was their inability to integrate the experience: Had they patiently and humbly entered on Divine terms, they would have been able to integrate the experience into their lives and return to sanctify their world. Integration would have confirmed that they were doing it not for themselves but for the cause, for G-d. The fact that they allowed themselves to be consumed with their own spiritual fire, demonstrated that it was their “own thing,” not G-d’s, a strange fire not commanded.
Now, in this week’s Torah portion, “after the death of Aaron’s sons,” Aaron is warned not to enter the Holy of Holies like his sons did. Rather, “with this shall Aaron enter the holy place” – in awe, obedience and self-abnegation. And in this way he would be able to “make atonement for himself and for his house” on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, and to say a prayer for the sustenance of Israel – acts of concern for the world.
In other words, the determining factor as to whether the soul’s fire will be a constructive or destructive force is dependent on the person’s motivation, how he begins his spiritual journey: If it’s a self indulgent experience, driven primarily by personal desire and interest, then you will not wish to turn back from your private ecstasy to the needs of the world, and the fire will inevitably consume you. If, however, it is driven by the selfless dedication and all-out surrender to the Divine, then within this ecstasy, the desire ultimately to return and sanctify the world will always be implicit, and the fire will lift you and your world to exalted heights.
In the famous Talmudic story of the “four that entered the garden” (a mystical experience) only Rabbi Akiva began the journey with the proper attitude: He “entered in peace and (therefore) came out in peace.” Because he entered with humility, in obedience to the Divine will and seeking to unite the higher and lower worlds, that is why he came out in peace. His intention of returning was implicit at the outset of his path to religious ecstasy. While the other three – Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma and Acher – all entered for other reasons, which determined how they emerged. Ben Azzai entered seeking ecstasy, not return; therefore he “looked and died.” Ben Zoma “looked and was stricken” (with madness). Acher “mutilated the shoots” (i.e., became an apostate).
In a similar way the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva “burned” each other up with their great passion. Their disrespect for one another was not despite but because of their greatness: Each student was so consumed with his own brilliant opinion that he could not tolerate his colleague’s position. People who are not that powerful and intense in their positions can find it easier to compromise and co-exist with others. But exceptional students who are extremely passionate about their interpretations and opinions in Torah – require far more humility, care and sensitivity to ensure that they do not “destroy” the other with their intensity. And the “holier” the “fire,” the more one feels that he is representing Torah and G-d – the greater the danger. As the Kotzker Rebbe sardonically interprets the Mishne: “Every argument that is for the sake of heaven will last forever:” When both parties know that their disagreement is driven by self-interest or the likes, then there is hope that they will come to some agreement. But when each party thinks that he is representing heaven, dressing up their differences of opinion in “holy garments,” then there is no hope for reconciliation, with each side feeling that it cannot compromise “G-d”…
Had these students been of lesser stature, their disrespect for each other would not have harmed them as much. But precisely because their minds were on fire and their hearts were ablaze did they burn each other up.
We are told the story of Aaron’s sons – and that of the students of Rabbi Akiva – in order to teach us an invaluable lesson about our own life experiences, and the dangers of passion, zealousness and self-righteousness:
Each of us contains a powerful soul, with fire in its belly. Each of us will, at one point or another, encounter spiritual opportunities; passionate moments which will entice and light up our fires, craving transcendence – the urge to reach beyond the daily grind. Transcendence can take many shapes: Spirituality, music, romance, travel, or sexuality, to name a few.
How you act in these times – when the flames of your soul are ablaze – will define the destiny of your life.
This explains why this week’s portion is known by the name “after” or “after the death.” Why name a Torah portion with an odd title – “after the death?” Why emphasize their tragic death?
The Torah is telling us that the “death” of Aaron’s two sons – both the death itself, and “after the death” – teaches us a vital lesson, actually a twofold lesson:
1) The search and need for transcendence, the craving and yearning for a spiritual high is healthy and a necessary ingredient in the human journey. All of man’s greatest achievements, his noblest acts, his deepest loves – draw from the soul’s passionate fire.
2) Yet, as with all powerful things, great care must be taken that the spiritual experience doesn’t “burn you up,” but is integrated in your life.
The fire of our souls, like any fire, can be the source of sustenance (healthy fire), or… an inferno (“strange fire”). The challenge is great. The choice is ours.
Therein lies the twofold positive lesson from the children of Aaron, both from their death and “after the death:”
Their death teaches us how not to enter the Holy of Holies uninvited, not to enter at our initiative, at any time we so choose, not to enter as a result of our personal desire; “after the death” teaches us how to enter – “with this shall Aaron enter the holy place” – with utmost humility, with sensitivity and above all, total immersing and sublimating yourself into the experience.
The same is true when we have a strong opinion about a given manner. The smarter you are, the more powerful your resolve, the more convinced you are in the righteousness of your position, the greater the care that needs to be taken to not hurt others in the process.
This may be the greatest secret to a healthy relationship or marriage: Your ability to transcend your own powerful position and certainty.
24,000 students self-destructed in this period of time due to their inability to co-exist. Their fervent passion and their gifts were their undoing. We redeem their deaths during these 49 days by looking into our passionate hearts and learning the art of restraint: That ultimate greatness is measured not by how right you are and by how great is your light, but by how you allowed that greatness to be contained and integrated into other people’s lives.