We return to the Torah this Shabbat with Leviticus 9 and the portion “Sh’mini” which looks at a variety fo ritual and cultic practices and concludes with a section on food laws. The portion opens with ritual practices regarding how to bring sacrifices and in Leviticus 10 we meet one of the more famous, if not challenging passages, when Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Avihu bring their sacrifice to God, but, we are told offer an “eish zara”, which is translated as strange, or alien or unauthorized fire. The penalty for this is death. You do the sacrifices int he prescribed way….or else!
Rabbis and scholars have puzzled over this passage for ages. Were these two men intoxicated (and there are numerous commentaries that look at that), did they desire to go against their father, Aaron to show him up? Was this another father-son family dynamic? Does this show us that we are not to deviate from the rules and regulations of religious practice? All of these questions, and more, will be asked around numerous Torah study tables this Shabbat.
But let me reference a comment by the former Chief Rabbi of England, Jonathan Sacks, who wrote of this passage in his Torah commentary book called “Essays on Ethics.” Sacks looks at the issue of fire in the sense of the fire of religion. This is particularly meaningful in today’s world where the “fire” of religious passion seems to be doing more harm than good. Indeed, as we observe a country, and world, that seems divided and polarized, we witness, more often than not, a religious zeal attached to much of this. A reading of Jewish history shows us that when this religious “fire” burns uncontrolled, disaster usually follows. And when that religious fire is married to political power, history teaches us that sadness and despair and death follow. Jewish history teaches us to beware of the religious zealot, for we often have gotten burned. As Sacks concludes in his essay on this alien or strange fire: “The message is simple and intensely serious: Religion is not what the European Enlightenment thought it would become: mute, marginal, and mild. It is fire–and like fire, it warms but it also burns. And we ar ethe guardians of the flame” (p.169)
Rabbi Richard F Address