( A thought about Parashat Shemini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47)
After a lifetime in his younger brother Moses’ shadow, Aaron was finally having his moment! Moses led the people from slavery. Moses received Torah on Mt Sinai. Aaron was always “the second banana.”
But for eight glorious days all of that was behind him as he reveled in the ceremony establishing him as the high priest of the people.
And then in an instant the celebration turned to ashes.
Aaron’s sons Nadav and Abihu offered “esh zarah” “alien fire” (Leviticus 10:1) on the altar of the Eternal One and in an instant the fire consumed them.
Midrashic and modern commentators offer several explanations:
They wished Moses and Aaron dead so they could take over the leadership of the people (B. Sanhedrin 52a).
They worshipped idols.
They were irreverent.
They were drunk
They attempted—unauthorized–to enter the holy of holies.
But no explanation satisfies.
We will never know why Nadav and Abihu died but the account teaches us a vital lesson illustrated by this story told by Rabbi Jack Riemer!
A weeping man lingered at his wife’s gravesite after her tragic death. In time the rabbi urged him to return to the car waiting to take him home.
“You don’t understand, Rabbi,” the man weeped, “I loved her!”
“I know you loved her,” the rabbi answered…”
“I loved her,” the man interrupted, “and once, I almost told her.”
Tragedy can strike any one of us in an instant.
In a moment our joy can turn to sorrow and our dreams to ashes. No amount of money, power or fame protects us from that possibility.
The tragedy of Nadav and Abihu urges us to embrace and savor every moment of joy and love that life offers because none of us can know what tomorrow will bring.