Generosity of Spirit

Dena Weiss

Parashat Shemini

This week’s parashah marks the consecration of the tabernacle, the mishkan, and the inauguration of its service. But this joyous occasion is clouded by the smoke of the strange and unwelcome fire that was brought by Aharon’s eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu:

ויקרא י:א-ג
וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ קְטֹרֶת וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי ה' אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם: וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי ה' וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם וַיָּמֻתוּ לִפְנֵי ה': וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל אַהֲרֹן הוּא אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ה' לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ וְעַל פְּנֵי כָל הָעָם אֶכָּבֵד וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן:


VaYikra 10:1-3
Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his censer, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered a foreign fire before God, which He had not commanded them. And fire emerged from the presence of God and consumed them, and they died before God. Then Moshe said to Aharon, “This is what God meant when He said, ‘Through those who are near Me, I will show myself holy and before all the people, I will be honored.’” And Aharon was silent.1 


Although Aharon himself is silent in the face of the tragic loss of his children, Rabbinic tradition is replete with attempts to uncover why Nadav and Avihu had to die, and what this tragedy can teach us about what it means to approach and engage with the holy. Nadav and Avihu’s overeagerness and overzealousness in approaching God’s presence is not approved of by God and is met by the the most severe of punishments. Nadav and Avihu’s passing teaches us that there are negative consequences to being focused solely on one’s own spiritual needs and desires. Instead, the truly righteous person both tempers their religious passion and recognizes and supports the spiritual needs of others.

In the beginning of BeMidbar, the Torah goes through the lineage of the family of Moshe and Aharon. As the text lists Aharon’s progeny, it notes the passing of Nadav and Avihu, who were Aharon’s sons, but are not going to carry on his priestly legacy:

במדבר ג:ב, ד
וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן הַבְּכֹר נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אֶלְעָזָר וְאִיתָמָר:...וַיָּמָת נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא לִפְנֵי ה' בְּהַקְרִבָם אֵשׁ זָרָה לִפְנֵי ה' בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי וּבָנִים לֹא הָיוּ לָהֶם וַיְכַהֵן אֶלְעָזָר וְאִיתָמָר עַל פְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן אֲבִיהֶם:


BeMidbar 3:2,4
These are the names of the sons of Aharon: Nadav the firstborn, and Avihu, Elazar, and Itamar... Nadav and Avihu died before God when they offered foreign fire before God in the wilderness of Sinai, and they had no children. Elazar and Itamar served as priests in the lifetime of their father Aharon.2 


Highlighting the fact that Nadav and Avihu did not have any children is perfectly relevant in context. However, the midrash in Mishnat R. Eliezer extracts this detail and reads it as a unique and somewhat surprising diagnosis of why it is that Nadav and Avihu met an early and terrible death:

משנת רבי אליעזר פרשה ה
גדולה הצלת בנים לאבות יתר מהצלת האבות לבנים. שהאבות אינן מצילין את בניהן אלא מן היסורין שלעולם הזה בלבד... אבל ביום הדין אינן יכולין להציל אותן מדינה של גיהנם, שנ' ואין מידי מציל. לא אברהם מציל את ישמעאל ולא יצחק מציל את עשו…
אבל הבנים מצילין את האבות מדינה של גיהנם בין גדולים, בין קטנים. גדולים מצילין אותן במעשיהן הטובים, וקטנים באסיפתן כשהם קטנים...אם תאמר, כבר האב צדיק, יזכה לעצמו, ואינו צריך לבנו, הרי הוא אומ' וימת נדב ואביהוא ובנים לא היו להם, שאלו היו להן בנים צדיקים, היו מכפרין להן, ולא היו ראויין להישרף.


Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer Parashah 5
The salvation that children provide their parents is greater than the salvation that parents provide for their children. For parents only save their children from the suffering of this world.
But on the day of Judgment parents cannot save their children from the judgment of hell, as it says, there is none who can save from My hand (Devarim 32:39). Avraham cannot save Yishmael, and Yitzhak cannot save Esav.
But the children can save their parents from the judgment of hell, whether they are adults or young children. The adult children can save through their good deeds, and the young children can save [through the atonement that is effected] when they die in their youth.
And if you say, the father is already righteous—let him bring merit to himself, and he will not need his child, behold it says, Nadav and Avihu died, in their bringing of a foreign fire to God...and they had no children (BeMidbar 3:4). For if they had had righteous children, those children would have provided atonement for them, and they, Nadav and Avihu, would not have been burned.


The midrash seems to state that the reason why Nadav and Avihu lost their lives due to the fire that they brought is that they did not have children. This claim is difficult to understand. Are we to believe that one can do whatever he or she wants as long as there are righteous children to grant atonement?

The power of this midrash’s teaching comes through its reversal of the way that we tend to think and speak about how the actions of the members of a family usually affect one another. Theologically and liturgically, Jewish tradition speaks of the concept of zekhut avot, ancestral merit, which accrues to the benefit of the descendants of Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya’akov. This midrash argues to the contrary, that merit actually works in the opposite direction—flowing from children back to their parents. And the midrash does not make this unusual claim in order to provide a satisfying explanation for the incredible tragedy of the loss of Nadav and Avihu, but rather to enable us to derive a significant lesson from it. The midrash is challenging our assumptions about ancestral merit in order to encourage a certain type of behavior.

If I, as a parent, believe that my merit will save me or my children, I am incentivized to become more righteous and virtuous myself, to stockpile righteous deeds, the reward for which can be exchanged for salvation. When the midrash argues that you can not save yourself or anyone else through your own merit, it encourages you to focus less on your own religious and spiritual growth and more on enabling others—in this case your children—to become more righteous. It is better to be a good parent whose children are good, than to be a virtuous person who has done many good deeds him or herself, but has not raised up anyone else.

Nadav and Avihu are paradigmatic of the attitude that this midrash is challenging. Nadav and Avihu were overzealous and therefore reckless; they were obsessed with trying to serve God and become close to God. They were so infatuated with the fiery glory of the Divine that they got too close and they were burnt. They tried to offer God more than God wanted from them. Nadav and Avihu did not die despite of their righteousness, but because of it.

A simplistic reading of the midrash states that Nadav and Avihu’s childlessness is the reason that they were not saved from the fire. A deeper reading of the midrash suggests that their childlessness was a symbolic indication of the type of people that they were—focused on spiritual matters to the exclusion of all else. To be a good parent means that you will have to skip some prayers and study less Torah in order to take care of your children. You have less time available to volunteer for worthy causes, less disposable income to give to the needy. 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, to be willing and able to focus on the growth and the flourishing and the success of someone who is not you.

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. It asks you to train yourself to be willing to sacrifice your own spiritual well-being: your own ability to do mitzvot, your own time to learn Torah, your own relationship with God, so that someone else will have the opportunity to do that mitzvah, someone else will have the opportunity to learn that Torah, someone else will advance in their closeness to God. Someone else, and not you.

The suggestion that you sacrifice your own spiritual growth for the progress of another challenges what may be the most basic and best religious instinct that we have, that is, the belief that the goal of my life is to serve God as best I can and to become as religiously advanced as I can be. The belief that I have been created to be as close to God, as pure in soul, body, action, and thought as possible, that my purpose here is to do as much good as I can possibly do. It replaces this with the much harder notion that my life’s goal should be to create the conditions for other people to come close to God, for other people to practice kindness, for other people to grow. And to recognize that what is important is that good is being done; ultimately it does not matter whether that good is being done by me.

In order for me to want you to cultivate your relationship with God, even at the expense of my own, I need to accept that you are just as real as I am, and that God is just as invested in you as He is in me. God loves me and wants to be loved by me, but God also loves you and wants to be loved by you. I need to accept the truth that the world, in fact, was not created for me, but for us.

Love, by definition, seeks to enjoy its object,3 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. I must say to God, “Even if it is painful and counter-intuitive, I am willing to enable You to build this relationship with someone who is not me. Not because I do not love You, but because I love You with a love that is beyond myself.”

This is exceedingly difficult. It asks you to affirm that religious development or closeness to God is critical and at the same time, it adjures you to develop the willingness to give up some of that closeness. It is also difficult in that it forces us to confront that just as a person can be greedy and selfish when it comes to material acquisitions and personal honor, one can also be a spiritual hoarder, a glutton for Torah, mitzvot, and their reward.

Nadav and Avihu were not the only pair of God’s servants who were consumed by their own zealousness, their own fire. R. Akiva’s students also perished in this way. Parashat Shemini is the first Torah reading that takes place after Pesah, the first of the Omer-counting period which leads up to Shavuot. Perhaps, not coincidentally, this is the time when, according to the Talmud, R. Akiva’s students died:

תלמוד בבלי יבמות סב:
אמרו שנים עשר אלף זוגים תלמידים היו לו לרבי עקיבא מגבת עד אנטיפרס וכולן מתו בפרק אחד מפני שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה...תנא כולם מתו מפסח ועד עצרת אמר רב חמא בר אבא ואיתימא ר' חייא בר אבין כולם מתו מיתה רעה מאי היא א"ר נחמן אסכרה.


Talmud Bavli Yevamot 62b
It was said that Rabbi Akiva had twelve-thousand pairs of disciples from Givat to Antipatris and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat one another with respect... It is taught: “All of them died between Pesah and Shavuot.” Rav Hama bar Abba or R. Hiyya bar Abin said: “All of them died a cruel death.” What was it? Rav Nahman said: “Diptheria.”


Like Nadav and Avihu, R. Akiva’s students were passionate to the point of death.4 What does it mean to say that these pairs of students did not treat each other with kavod, with honor, and respect, seriousness, and gravity? They did not understand what it means to be a havruta, a study-partner. When I learn with you, your learning should be more important to me than my own. When I study with someone else, I need to make sure that they are learning too, that they understand. And taking responsibility for your learning may diminish my own achievement. If I have to explain something that I already understand to you, that is time lost to me for learning something new, for becoming a greater scholar, for embellishing and polishing the crown of Torah that is on my head. When I learn with someone else, I am limited to what they can achieve, and I can never surpass them. 

This perspective runs the risk of creating a world of spiritual mediocrity, where there is no one who excels in Torah, no one who is exceedingly virtuous, no one about whom it can be said, he was face to face with God. True greatness often demands going at it alone, leaving others behind. This type of greatness was modeled by R. Akiva’s own choice to abandon his wife in order to pursue the path of scholarship. If R. Akiva had stayed at home, he might have remained an unlearned shepherd.5 Yet this willingness to be spiritually generous ensures that everyone has the opportunity to learn and grow. It is the way to achieve the vision in Yeshayahu (54:13) of ‘וְכָל־בָּנַ֖יִךְ לִמּוּדֵ֣י ה; that all of your children will be the students of God, וְרַ֖ב שְׁל֥וֹם בָּנָֽיִךְ with an abundance of peace among them.

We should invest in each other the way that we invest in the next generation; out of deep love and broad generosity; out of duty; out of an understanding that our fates are intertwined, that time spent supporting one another is never time wasted. What may feel like spiritual sacrifice and religious stagnation is actually tremendous progress and the closest closeness with the Divine that we can achieve. May we merit to become a true kingdom built entirely of priests, who support, serve, and teach. Who atone for one another.

1 Trans. NRSV, emended.

Trans. NRSV, emended.

3 C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 1940.

4 In Rabbinic literature, a teacher is often compared to a parent, and a student to their child. See Talmud Bavli Kiddushin 31b.

5 See Talmud Bavli Ketubot 62b.