Dvar on Hukat-Balak

delivered by Gene Bodzin

 July 12, 2003



By this point, the main narrative of the Torah is almost finished. A couple of weeks ago, we read how Moshe sent spies to scout out the Promised Land, and how the people were so fearful because of the report that most of them brought back that almost the whole generation had to die out. Hence, the forty years of wandering in the desert. 


As some of you might recall, the last time I spoke it was about Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron who died when they brought aish zara [strange fire] into the mishkan [tabernacle] on the day it was inaugurated. [See Vayikra 10: 1, 2] I promised then to get back to the subject the next time their names came up, and that happens to be in next week’s reading. This is close enough.


Parshat Balak ends with a bizarre incident featuring Pinchas, who happened to be the nephew of Nadav and Avihu. At the end of the story of Balak and Balaam, we find that some of the Israelites began mingling with the women of Midian and worshipped the Baal of Peor. Many were killed as a result, but one couple openly defied Moshe and Pinchas ran them through with a spear. By virtue of this action the priesthood devolved to descendents of Aaron in perpetuity. All told, twenty-four thousand people died as a result of this episode.


And Pinchas is further remembered every time we pass this way as we read the Torah. Next week’s Parsha is identified by his name.


The reference to Nadav and Avihu in next week’s Parsha—in the census that was taken at the end of the forty years—is odd. You’d expect a census to count only living people, but the ghosts of Nadav and Avihu show up when the descendents of Levi are mentioned (Bamidbar 26:61) . The text tells us that these men were not around because they died when they brought aish zara [strange fire] into the tabernacle on the day it was inaugurated. We’ve heard this before. The Torah doesn’t seem to be able to tell us this fact enough times.


The commentators, of course, aren’t going to let this one rest. It’s axiomatic that the Torah doesn’t repeat itself unnecessarily. Why then do we read the same details about Nadav and Avihu so many times?


A hint comes from the text: Vayakrivu lifnei adonai aish zara asher lo tziva otam [and they offered a strange (or foreign, or alien) fire that God had not commanded them] .


To understand this, let’s look first at the places where Moshe was told how to build the mishkan. A number of sentences contain some form of the words ka’asher tziva adonai et Moshe [as God had commanded Moshe]: In Shemot 39: verses 1, 5, 7, 21, 26, 29, 31, 32, 42, 43; and in Shemot 40: verses 16, 19, 21, 23, 25, 27, 29, 32.  That makes 18 references.


In relation to the sacrifices, we find something similar: In Vayikra 8: verses 4, 5, 9, 13, 17, 21, 29, 34, 35, 36; and in Vayikra 9, verses 9: 5, 6, 7, 10, 21—another 16 references. A total of 34.


Look especially at 9:6—Do this thing that God has commanded you, and God’s glory will appear to you.  The implication is that the Kohanim must not be tempted to do their own thing. The service in the tabernacle was to be lmited to those things that were commanded.


Now think again about Nadav and Avihu. We’ll look at exactly what they did in a minute. There are dozens of opinions, but everybody agrees that, whatever they did, it was something that God had not commanded.





Nadav and Avihu could easily be seen as the Jewish counterparts of Icarus, flying too close to the sun and having their wings singed by the heat, spiritually presumptuous men who were destroyed by a fire that they had made.


But leave it to the rabbinic commentators. They have a field day explaining the meaning of aish zara and trying to figure out exactly what Nadav and Avihu did.


At one extreme, the Rashbam says that Nadav and Avihu did no more than enter the holy of holies at the moment the divine fire descended. In effect, they were the victims of a work accident!


There are batches of other rabbinical interpretations:


1. They failed to comply with ritual laws

They brought a sacrifice that God had not commanded.


2. They were intemperate

Rabbi Yishmael said they were punished for entering the mishkan after having drunk wine. As evidence of this, the next subject brought up after their death is a warning to Aaron and his descendents to avoid drink when they are carrying out the holy service.


3. They were irreverent at matan torah

Some commentators say that during the time of the revelation on Sinai (Shemot 24:12), they ate and drank irreverently. They should have died then but did not. They were put on probation, and now they were zapped because they did something wrong again.


4. They were impatient

According to Rashi, they died for entering the holy of holies before Aaron had a chance to do so.


5. They failed to consult with their elders

They acted independently, without consulting the leaders, or even each other

Vayikra Raba 20:8 says that Aaron’s sons died because of four things:

entering the holy of holies

offering a sacrifice that had not been commanded

bringing an alien fire

failing to consult each other


For evidence that they failed to consult, Vayikra Raba quotes Bar Kappara b’shem Rav Yermiyahu ben Eliezer, who makes much of Vayikra 10:1 “Each of them took his fire pan.” It’s them doing their own thing.


5a. According to Vayikra Raba, Aaron’s sons died because they issued a halachic ruling in the presence of Moshe and Aaron without consulting them. That’s why the Torah always describes them as the sons of Aaron: to emphasize that they should have been subservient to their elders.


5b. Other commentators insist that they were called the sons of Aaron because they were under twenty. There’s lots of discussion about why they were punished so severely even though they were young, but we won’t get into that now.


5c. They failed to marry and have children

The commentators who said this were obviously part of the “Twenty already and not married yet?” school


6. They were haughty

According to a Midrash, Nadav and Avihu resented the authority that Moshe had invested in their father Aaron. According to the Midrash, they were overheard asking: “When will these old men pass on so that we may be the nation’s new leaders?”




Some commentators, who are far more kind to Nadav and Avihu, give other reasons for their being killed:


7. They were killed because they showed excessive zeal

Ba’al ha’Turim comments on the extra vav in 10:2: And a fire went out from before God and it consumed them and they died before God. The numerical value of vav is six, and this commentator gives six reasons for their death, including the following: for offering a voluntary incense offering, though the Ketores could be offered only obligatorily, twice daily.


In a book called Heichal Beracha, a scholar called The Yitzchak says that although the actions of Nadav and Avihu were incorrect, their intentions were pure. They were punished for their wrong actions in this world but rewarded for their intentions in the world to come. They left their bodies in a state of union with God and that they ascended to cling to the Tree of Life.




Then there’s the mystical view:

8. God wished to have the brothers closer to him

In Shaar HaGilgulim, The Ari (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria) claims that Nadav and Avihu didn’t actually die. Rather, their souls resided at a very high level, the level of Atzilut. When they were taken by God, their souls returned immediately as an ibur (a higher soul entering a person while he is still alive)


What makes this tradition interesting is its assertion that the souls of Nadav and Avihu transmigrated to the body of Pinchas the son of Elazar the son of Aaron! Not only that, but those souls returned as an ibur many more timesin the prophets Elisha and Elijah, Hezekiah king of Yehuda, Matityahu ben Yochanan the Hasmonean high priest, Akavia ben Mahalalel, Rabbi Akiva, and many others. 


This view says that Nadav and Avihu intended to sanctify themselves, but that God judged them harshly simply because they did something they had not been commanded to do.


Which leaves us no farther ahead than when we started.


I have told you that this story was part of the Torah reading for my Bar Mitzvah. I have given lots of thought to the incident over the years, but if you ask me what Nadav and Avihu actually did, I would have to say that I really don’t know. The commentators cannot all be right, and I cannot tell you which reading of the story is correct. (Nobody likes to say this, but all of the commentators could be wrong. So how can I claim to know any more than I did when I was thirteen?)


Instead of focusing on what Nadav and Avihu did, let’s think about the lessons that can be taken out of the story. 





1) To be born is to be at risk.

2) Sudden calamity can strike at any time.

3) We may be able to avert the severity of our suffering, but not the suffering itself.

4) The lives of those who presume to speak for God must be beyond reproach.

5) Good intentions are not enough; we are judged by our actions as much as by our motives.

6) There can be no holiness without an acceptance of the commandments of God.

7) Taking the initiative in holy matters is serious business.






The conservative movement must constantly cope with a paradox: It introduces innovations and alters the legacy of the past because no tradition can survive by remaining entirely static. But if in the tension between tradition and innovation it leans too far in the direction of innovation, it risks obscuring the tradition,  making it unrecognizable. Taking the initiative in holy matters is serious business.


The exact actions that sealed the fate of Nadav and Avihu may be unknown; what we do know is that they died because they did something that had not been commanded by God.


I’m only raising this issue because I believe it should be considered and openly discussed by every conservative congregation. It is not enough for a committee to vote on changes to the service or to other ritual matters. The validity and value of any aspect of Judaism is not a matter of majority rule. The key criterion is whether an action was commanded by God, or consonant with a commandment of God.


In any society or association, people expect to be able to depend on each other for certain basic things. Over the years Jews everywhere knew that other Jews would use the mitzvot as touchstones of behavior. A stranger who claimed to be a Jew in a European shtetl was asked to produce his tzitzit. If he could not, that was ipso facto proof that he was not one of us; if he could, the community welcomed him, no strings attached.


You may have heard the story about the young man who refused to go to shul on Rosh Hashana. He was an atheist, he explained to his father. “You’re Jewish too,” his father retorted, “and Jewish atheists go to shul on Rosh Hashana.” There are some things that Jews simply do. That’s what it means to be a Jew. Not to do them is to change the definition of Jewish so much that nobody knows what it means any more.


At a certain point, innovation begins to obscure the traditional limits of right and wrong. What people can depend on each other to do, or be, becomes doubtful.


I humbly submit that as we tinker with ritual we may be ignoring more meaningful issues, such as the ways to be more connected to each other, the nature of the assumptions that hold us together, and the responsibility of each of us to help build our community.


If we took those things seriously, we wouldn’t have trouble getting a minyan together when we want to begin our services at 9:45. And we wouldn’t have to scrape and beg to gather a minyan at other times of the week. Early this year we held a number of “learning services” on Sunday mornings. We invited people to come and learn how to put on tfilin, how to lead services. There were few takers. The only time we had a minyan was when the event coincided with the shul’s anniversary Shabbaton.


As a congregation, we can dance on the head of a pin belaboring ritual details all we want; if we can’t get ten people together when we want to begin our services, how can we even claim to be a congregation?


That’s enough to think about for a while. Clarifying some of these issues could help define the conservative movement, and perhaps we can discuss them in greater detail as part of our adult education program. Let me just finish with another short parable: A certain town had just enough Jews for a minyan,  and a minyan always showed up for services. One day an eleventh Jew came to town, and they never had a minyan again!