The Greatest Love of All

April 13, 2007

(saltyfemme says: welcome to guest blogger and she took a bite, who will be bringing us some delicious words of Torah every so often. For the uninitiated, parashat hashavuah is some interpretive words on the weekly Torah portion.)

Parashat Shemini

“The Kotzker Rebbe said that the distance between heaven and earth is a journey of hundreds of years, but the distance between the mind and the heart is even greater.” (source)

Near the beginning of the parsha, we meet Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, who upon making an impromptu devotional incense offering in the sanctuary that becomes a “strange” or “alien” fire meet a sudden and puzzling death.1

It could be argued, and often is, that they built their alien fire for another God, as idolatry, a harshly punishable offense (i.e. the golden calf fiasco), but I don’t think that was the direction in which Nadav and Avihu strayed. On the heels of the formation of the Israelites as a people, Aaron and his sons held roles of distinction. They were priests, divinely chosen, and well-versed in the new language of monotheism they were expected to espouse. In fact, the previous reference to them is when God calls upon Moses to officially choose and celebrate all five of them as holy priests.2

But regardless of their servitude and exceptionality, God consumes them with no further discussion. Afterwards, Moses gathers Aaron and his two remaining children, Elazar and Itamar, and delivers a list of bizarre instructions for them. He instructs them to act as though they are not in mourning, keeping their hair and clothes neat, refraining from all intoxicating substances, and maintaining their air of nobility and holiness as beacons amongst all the other Israelites. These rules are given with the threat of death not only to them, but to everyone around them, and with the guilt-ridden warning that they are meant to be examples to others, to “distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the clean and unclean.”3

But moments later, these guiding lights disobey Moses’ orders to eat the “elevation offering”—no doubt meant to elevate their souls, and likely an effort to separate them from the impure acts of their close kin, Nadav and Avihu. Alas, Aaron explains himself vaguely, saying that on that (tragic) day, of all days, he could not enjoy this honor. And Moses approves.

Why is Aaron met with compassion when he disobeys the law outright, while Nadav and Avihu impulsively act (against no clear law) and receive no leniency whatsoever? Why is it kosher to eat cod, grasshoppers, and cows, but not octopus, pelicans or beetles?4 These questions hang over the remainder of Shmini.

Many say that separations, arbitrary and otherwise, are the essence of Judaism. Many also say that questioning is the essence of Judaism. I think that the separations are what largely necessitate the questioning, each rooting the other more deeply with each examination. The tension between the black, white, and gray zones entrenches and demands rereading, re-explaining, new teshuvot (responsa), new halachot (laws), new denominations, rituals, and interpretations.

With this in mind, and understanding, let us cut to a musical interlude. Please set your mp3 players to the “Strange Fire,” by the Indigo Girls.

In my examination of this text, a constellation hit me that this song’s not-so-hidden meaning is clearly about Nadav and Avihu. Surely, I am one of the last queer, folk-loving exegetes to figure this out, but nevertheless, I modestly propose a consideration of the song’s lyrics in hopes of greater understanding.

The fiesty lyrics indeed maintain the stress of conflicted analysis. The song begins in the first person, where it seems Nadav or Avihu explains himself simplistically, as a loving devotee, with a passion that courses through him.

I come with a strange fire, I make an offering of love…

The incense of my soul is burned by the fire in my blood.

But the purity and beauty of their strange gift is questioned by another voice in the second verse. The verse delivers what is the traditional rabbinic interpretation, the accusation that Nadav and Avihu died because of their self-importance emerges.

Mercenaries of the shrine, who are you to speak for God?

With haughty eyes and lying tongues and hands that shed innocent blood.

Who delivered you the power to interpret calvary?

You gamble away our freedom to gain your own authority.

Many have inserted that Nadav and Avihu had acted similarly callously in other situations, with grandiose schemes to take over Moses and Aaron’s roles5, scoffing off marriage prospects purely on account of their own perceived superiority6, and even of being drunk at the time of the offering.

But Amy Ray, fellow former religion major and frequent user of biblical allusions in her lyrics, incorporates these accusations with a little psychoanalysis. She offers a remedial third verse:

When you learn to love yourself, you will dissolve all the stones that are cast.

You will learn to burn the icing sky and to melt the waxen mask.

Yes, to have the gift of true release, this is a peace that will take you higher.

I come to you with my offering, I bring you strange fire.

Nadav and Avihu bring strange fire to the big potluck in the sky as the price they pay for not keeping it real. Like the rabbis, Ray sees the error of their ways, but she uniquely personalizes them as their individual plights against insecurity. And though she recognizes that their offering is rooted in love, she intimates the adage that one cannot love another until one loves oneself. The love, while nice and all, was itself impure, from the wrong place, and thus, unwelcome.

Nadav and Avihu, who make fewer than ten cameos in the Torah and never speak for themselves, are most remembered by their dramatic deaths. Posthumously, only once is it mentioned that they died without a mention of the strange fire7. Treated with such disdain and impatience, I will admit that I like Ray’s reading for the long-awaited compassion she gives them. I am not convinced that their fire was idolatry, mostly because of their purist familial connections and clean records. I am more comfortable with the idea that in between their anointing as priests and their deaths, arrogance and greed found places in their hearts. The need to be seen and heard and create spectacles out of spirituality perhaps created spiritual arterial blockages in their hearts. And thus, with each attempt to reach a higher place, to love God and show it, they stopped along the way to massage their own egos. Perhaps this strange fire was simply the last straw. Perhaps the distance between their hearts and good sense lengthened with each attempt, creating an impossible distance to forge.

And so we turn down the guitar harmonies and return to Aaron, our pardoned priest. Faced with death threats from God and Moses, he follows his heart and is given a chance to explain his disobedience. His heart, in the throes of mourning and pain from losing two of his sons that very day understandably disables him. He knows he could not properly engage in the highly spiritual acts and so he opts out, rather than reenact a scene of unholy devotion.

Rav Kook said that Nadav and Avihu held only half of the puzzle but thought it was whole. He said they had wisdom (chochmah) but not insight (binah). Unable to see beyond the moment and beyond themselves, they lacked necessary equipment to actually give a piece of themselves in their love and devotion.

Chochmah and binah, like the separations and the questions, are little good on their own. It’s like the black and white without the gray zones—they need each other to truly exist as their whole selves. Nadav and Avihu’s harsh punishment beckons for justification, and we get it with Moses’ gentle dealings with Aaron. The relationship between those two events becomes evident with the push and pull. Why can’t pelicans and octopi be kosher? That’s an entirely other can of treyf worms.


1. Lev. 10:1-2
2. Ex. 28:1
3. Lev. 10:10
4. Lev. 11:13-23
5. Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 52a
6. Midrash Rabbah 20:10
7. Chronicles I 24:2; Thanks to Zac Johnson for helping me locate this reference and for the last minute, long-distance assistance.



  1. this post is a multimedia potluck in the sky. thanks.

  2. i just wanted to say: you remind me how much i love biblical studies.

  3. this is great. you are great. the only thing greater would be to hear this drash in an orthodox shul.

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