“It was on the eighth day, Moses called to Aaron and his sons, and to the elders of Israel.” (Lev.9:1)
This represents the final day of the inauguration ceremony of Aaron and his sons. But it is very significant for other reasons as well. According to Rashi, it is also the first day of the month of Nissan (the first month of the year) and also the day that the Mishkan (Tabernacle) is erected for its service.
But something else happened on this day; something terrible. Aaron’s son’s, Nadab and Abihu, both of whom had spent the entire week in contemplation, preparation, and zealous devotion, were struck down by the LORD for offering “strange fire” (Lev.10:1-2). How could this be?
To begin to understand this, we may need to go backwards in the narrative of the Bible. In fact, all the way back to Creation.
The process of building the Mishkan was an exercise in learning how to be a Creator. The Almighty created the Universe, and the Mishkan becomes a miniature universe that is patterned after what is hidden in the heavenly realm:
“Let them construct a sanctuary for Me, that I may dwell among them. According to all that I am going to show you, as the pattern of all its furniture, just so you shall construct it.” (Ex.25:8-9)
Adam was created on the sixth day of Creation. It is believed by the sages that the fall happened before the Sabbath, but that God waited until after the Sabbath to exile them. In the meantime, though, Erev Shabbat came with the onset of night. Rabbinic legend states that Adam feared for his life after his sin and cowered in the darkness until God showed him how to make fire and create light to sustain him through the night. (Deuteronomy Rabbah 13, Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 20)
This is the reason for the Havdalah candle at the end of Shabbat on Saturday night.
The concept of the “Eighth Day” is the reference to the work of man after the pattern of God. Man has the power to create light. But does he have the wisdom to wield it?
When God created the Universe, He did so for His own pleasure, surely, but we, His created beings, stand to benefit the most from this creation. Our very purpose and identity within creation finds its most fulfilling expression within the framework of understanding God Himself, and in finding unity with Him.
One might think, in light of this, that personal kavanah, or connection with God, is more important than virtually any other consideration. But, if we observe carefully, we see something about the human condition that precludes this. And it is found at the very beginning of the Bible.
When God created Man, He made a statement that echoes through time:
“Then the LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone, I will make him a helper suitable for him.” (Gen.2:18)
A major element of God’s creative efforts is in the way He self-restricts His innate transcendence in order to make room for man. It is this Divine consideration for all things and all of creation which holds the natural world in balance and preserves life. God does not just create man. He first prepares the Garden in which His creation will live, work and play. God places the man in the Garden and tells him to partner with Himself in stewarding it, as though he is co-owner, and tells him to subdue it’s wild inclination and to cultivate it.
To obey in this, Adam will need to grow in understanding and maturity, and also in perspective. The idea of man partnering with God in His creation is a common theme in Jewish thought:
“Rava said, and some say it was Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi who said: Even an individual who prays on Shabbat evening must recite the passage: “And the heavens and the earth were finished (vaykhullu)” (Gen.2:1-3), as Rav Hamnuna said: Anyone who prays on Shabbat evening and recites the passage of vaykhullu, the verse ascribed him credit as if he became a partner with the Holy One, Blessed be He, in the act of Creation….It is considered as though the Holy One, Blessed be He, and the individual who says this become partners and completed the work together.” (Talmud Shabbat 119b, Koren Steinsaltz edition)
But there is more to this than merely being present. Proper discernment of space and judgment of right and wrong is also required of those who partner in creation:
“And the people stood over Moses from the morning to the evening” (Ex.18:13). Does it enter your mind that Moses would sit and judge all day long? If so, when was his Torah study accomplished? Rather, surely the verse is coming to tell you: Any judge who judges a true judgment truthfully, even if he sits in judgment only one hour, the verse ascribes to him as if he became a partner to the Holy One, Blessed be He, in the act of Creation, as by means of judgment he upholds the world…” (Talmud Shabbat 10a, Koren Steinsaltz edition)
This ethic is reflective of the faith of the father of the people of God, Abraham, of whom it was said by God through the writing of Moses:
“For I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice.” (Gen.18:19)
This speaks not only about righteousness, but of the ability to restrain oneself in the expression of zeal, for the sake of others. How so?
Raising your children with sufficient devotion might mean that you are not always able to give God your fullest attention. To be a good parent is to care about yourself but to care about someone else even more…This perspective teaches that when you are looking for the greatest way to develop religiously, you should look at how you can facilitate the religious growth of someone else…Love, by definition, seeks to enjoy its object, and it is thus natural for my love of God to express itself in a desire to be with Him, and to be with Him alone. But, if we want our love of God to be selfless, it must include an investment in God’s relationship with other people. (Dena Weiss, “Generosity of Spirit”, http://www.hadar.org)
This is all very touching and meaningful, you may say, but ‘What does this have to do with the death of Nadab and Abihu?’
“…God wants human beings to exercise power: responsibly, creatively, and within limits set by the integrity of nature…He wants us to be the guardians of the world He has entrusted to our care. That is the significance of the eighth day. It is the human counterpart of the first day of creation….The Tabernacle was intended to be a miniature universe, constructed by human beings. Just as God made the earth as a home for mankind, so the Israelites in the wilderness built the Tabernacle as a symbolic home for God. It was their act of creation. Thus it had to begin on the eighth day….
…The ability to create goes hand in hand with the ability to destroy. Every power can be turned to good or evil….
…The Torah prefaces the making of man with a reflective statement – “Let us make…” – as if to signal the risk implicit in creating a being with the power of speech, imagination, and free will: the one life form capable of disobeying God and threatening the order and orderliness of nature…
The light of the first day is the illumination God makes. The light of the eighth day is the illumination God teaches us to make.” (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Leviticus: The Book of Holiness”, Maggid books, 2015, pg.136)
The lesson in this for us is central to the ceremony at the completion of Shabbat. Having to come to the end of sanctified time, we find night upon us again. At the end of God’s rest, there is darkness awaiting man as he journeys into the week and the world before him. It is a darkness that man must address on his own, with the lessons he has learned from the Father. What shall he do?
Zealousness and devotion is not enough, because if we run alone after God with our light held close, we leave others in darkness who may not be able to follow.
The wise man, the righteous man, the tzaddic, lays down his own devotion, and slows down his pursuit of God long enough, to gather the weak around him; those who look to him for guidance, and lights a candle that all may gather around it.
We extend our hands, collectively, towards the flame, as a family, and not as zealous individuals, and the gleam shines on our fingers, while our faces remain in the shadows, blended together with each other.
The sin of Nadab and Abihu was a sin of zealousness without self-restraint, something that can only result in destruction when the goal is the creation of something good.
We are to partner with God in bringing healing and spiritual enlightenment to the world around us, but being on fire for God will only heat the room if the heat source is safely contained within the boundaries that God has established.
We don’t need a fresh indwelling as much as we need a fresh understanding of dwelling within.
Self-restraint is the definition of power under control.
Leviticus teaches us that holiness is a holy fire which must be contained by the boundaries of Law. Our children are depending upon our understanding of this.