A strange episode is used to explain why, according to
Jewish tradition, weddings are not scheduled during this time of the year, the
Omer period between Passover and Shavuot:
In Talmudic times 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died
during this period "for not showing respect to one another". (Yevamot
62b) We therefore honor this "mourning period" by avoiding celebrations that
can be scheduled at other times. (Tur and Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim
How is it possible that such great students of such a
great master should stoop to not respecting each other? Especially considering
that their teacher, Rabbi Akiva taught that "love your fellow like yourself" is
a "great fundamental in Torah"!
Isn’t that a bit harsh of a punishment for this crime?
Their fate is equally, if not even more disturbing:
Disrespect is awful. But why did it cause them to all die? Isn’t that a bit
harsh of a punishment for this crime?
And above all, why are we told about this sad story,
and asked to commemorate it by refraining from marriage and other celebrations?
The past is the past; why the need to dwell on it?
The Torah portion of Shemini concludes a
similarly mysterious event that took place three chapters back: After the
Sanctuary was completed, the Torah tells us that the two elder sons of Aaron,
Nadav and Avihu, "offered a strange fire before G‑d, which He had not
commanded." The result: "A fire went out from G‑d and consumed them, and they
died before G‑d". (Levit. 10:1-2)
Three Torah portions later, in the opening of
Acharei Mot, G‑d specifically commanded that the example of Nadav and Avihu
should not be repeated: "And G‑d spoke to Moses, after the death of Aaron’s two
sons, who came close to G‑d and died... Speak to Aaron your brother, that he [be
careful to] not come at all times into the Holy... so that he not die... [but]
with this shall Aaron come into the holy place". (ibid. 16:1-2) The Torah
continues with the conditions how to enter the Holy of Holies. Rashi explains
that this command comes immediately after the statement of the death of Aaron’s
sons, to warn him that his service of G‑d should not be like that of his sons.
What lies behind Nadav and Avihu’s actions? Did they
behave properly or not? On one hand, they were clearly great men who "came close
to G‑d;" on the other hand, they died because they "offered a strange fire
before G‑d, which He had not commanded." And G‑d is warning Aaron not to behave
And what is the meaning of the "strange fire" that
Above all, if Aaron’s sons behaved wrongly why is it
important to document their sad story, which presents them in a negative light?
The key to the story lies in the word "fire." Fire is
passion. All passion comes from the fire of the soul, "the soul of man is the
fire of G‑d." Like a flame, a soul always reaches upward, licking the air in its
search for transcendence, only to be restrained by the wick grounding the flame
to the earth. The soul’s fire wants to defy the confines of life; the free
spirit wants to soar ever higher, always reaching for the heavens.
Like fire, the spirit ablaze cannot tolerate the mediocrity and monotony...
Like fire, the spirit ablaze cannot tolerate the
mediocrity and monotony of the inanimate "wick" of materialism. Its passion
knows no limits as it craves for the beyond.
But just like it can be the source of our greatest
strength, the fire of the soul, like any fire, can also be the cause of great
destruction. Therein lays the story of Nadav and Avihu, two extraordinary souls.
When the holy Sanctuary was finished, Aaron’s two elder
sons, deeply spiritual individuals, were drawn to enter the holiest sanctum on
earth. They wanted to bask in the ecstasy of the Temple’s pure spirit.
Indeed, the behavior of these two sons was not a sin;
it was an act of great sanctification, as Moses tells their father immediately
following the tragedy: "This is what G‑d spoke, saying: 'I shall be sanctified
by those who are close to Me.'" The sages explain: Moses said, "Aaron, my
brother, I knew that the Sanctuary would be sanctified by those who were beloved
and close to G‑d. When G‑d said 'I shall be sanctified by those close to Me,' I
thought it referred to me or you; now I see that they – Nadav and Avihu – are
greater then both of us."
The Ohr Hachaim explains that their death was
"by Divine 'kiss' like that experienced by the perfectly righteous. Only [the
problem was that] the righteous die when the Divine 'kiss' approaches them,
while they died by their approaching it.... Although they sensed their own
demise, this did not prevent them from drawing near [to G‑d] in attachment,
delight, delectability, fellowship, love, kiss and sweetness, to the point that
their souls ceased from them."
Nadav and Avihu’s death was a result of their profound
yearning for a Divine experience. Their error was that they initiated it at
their own discretion, and "selfishly" allowed the ecstasy to consume them. Their
sin was not they got close to the Divine, but that they died doing so. In a
sense, they wanted it too much, so much so that they rushed into the fire and
got burned in the process. Their bodies could no longer contain their souls.
Thus the Torah says, "when they came close to G‑d and
(with such passion that) they died." Why does the Torah add "and they died" when
it has already said, "after the death of the two sons of Aaron?" Although it is
healthy to divest yourself of material concerns, at the moment when you stand
poised at the ultimate ecstasy of the soul, you must turn again to the work that
the soul must do to transform the physical existence. Nadav and Avihu achieved
the ecstasy but not the return. This was their sin and the reason for their
death. They "came close to G‑d and they died." They allowed their spiritual
passion override their task to transform the world. They escaped beyond the
world and beyond life itself.
If their motivation was pure, driven by the fiery
passion of the soul, why then was it called a "strange fire"?
...even if their intention was a good one, it
ultimately was driven by their personal desire...
Because even if their intention was a good one, it
ultimately was driven by their personal desire, albeit a spiritual desire, but
still defined by their subjective drives. It may have begun for Divine reasons,
but they allowed it to become their own personal interest, mounting to a point
of intensity that it destroyed them, thus rendering the "fire" into a "strange
fire," one which "He had not commanded." They entered on their own terms, at
their own pace, at their own choosing – not on G‑d’s terms.
And this was the reason that they actually ended up
dying in the process. Because the same G‑d that imbued us with passionate souls
also commanded us to use the passion not to expire in ecstasy and escape the
universe, no matter how appealing that choice may be, but to channel the passion
downward and transform the material world in which we live into a Divine home.
This is the purpose of the Temple: "Build me a sanctuary (out of physical
materials) and I will rest among you."
Thus, the ultimate test of Aaron’s sons’ intentions
was their inability to integrate the experience. Had they patiently and humbly
entered on Divine terms, they would have been able to integrate the experience
into their lives and return to sanctify their world. Integration would have
confirmed that they were doing it not for themselves but for the cause, for G‑d.
The fact that they allowed themselves to be consumed with their own spiritual
fire, demonstrated that it was their "own thing," not G‑d’s, a strange fire not
Subsequently, in the Torah portion, "after the death
of Aaron’s sons," Aaron is warned not to enter the Holy of Holies as his sons
did. Rather, "with this shall Aaron enter the holy place" – in awe, obedience,
and self-abnegation. And in this way he would be able to "make atonement for
himself and for his house" on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, and to
say a prayer for the sustenance of Israel – acts of concern for the world.
In other words, the determining factor whether the
soul’s fire will be a constructive or destructive force is dependent on the
person’s motivation, how he begins his spiritual journey. If it’s a self
indulgent experience, driven primarily by personal desire and interest, then you
will not wish to turn back from your private ecstasy to the needs of the world,
and the fire will inevitably consume you. If, however, it is driven by the
selfless dedication and all-out surrender to the Divine, then within this
ecstasy, the desire ultimately to return and sanctify the world will always be
implicit, and the fire will lift you and your world to exalted heights.
In the famous Talmudic story of the "four that entered
the garden" (a tremendous mystical experience), only Rabbi Akiva began the journey with the
proper attitude: He "entered in peace and (therefore) came out in peace."
Because he entered with humility, in obedience to the Divine will and seeking to
unite the higher and lower worlds, that is why he came out in peace. His
intention of returning was implicit at the outset of his path to religious
ecstasy. While the other three – Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma and 'Acher' – all entered for
other reasons, which determined how they emerged. Ben Azzai entered seeking
ecstasy, not return; therefore he "looked and died." Ben Zoma "looked and was
stricken" (with madness). 'Acher' "mutilated the shoots" (i.e. became an
apostate)....the "holier" the "fire," the more one feels that he is representing Torah and G‑d – the greater the danger.
In a similar way, the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva
"burned" each other up with their great passion. Their disrespect for one
another was not despite but because of their greatness: Each student was
so consumed with his own brilliant opinion that he could not tolerate his
colleague’s position. People who are not that powerful and intense in their
positions can find it easier to compromise and co-exist with others. But
exceptional students who are extremely passionate about their interpretations
and opinions in Torah – they require far more humility, care and sensitivity to
ensure that one does not "destroy" the other with his intensity. And the
"holier" the "fire," the more one feels that he is representing Torah and G‑d –
the greater the danger. As the Kotzker Rebbe sardonically interprets the
Mishneh: "Every argument that is for the sake of heaven will last forever:"
When both parties know that their disagreement is driven by self-interest or the
likes, then there is hope that they will come to some agreement. But when each
party thinks that he is representing heaven, dressing up their differences of
opinion in "holy garments," then there is no hope for reconciliation, with each
side feeling that it cannot compromise "G‑d"….
Had these students been of lesser stature, their
disrespect for each other would not have harmed them as much. But precisely
because their minds were on fire and their hearts were ablaze did they burn each
We are told the story of Aaron’s sons – and the
students of Rabbi Akiva – in order to teach us an invaluable lesson about our
own life experiences, and the dangers of passion, zealousness and
Each of us contains a powerful soul, with fire in its
belly. Each of us will, at one point or another, encounter spiritual
opportunities; passionate moments which will entice and light up our fires,
craving transcendence – the need to get beyond the daily grind. Transcendence
can take on many shapes: Spirituality, music, romance, travel, or sexuality, to
name a few.
How you act in these times – when the flames of your
soul are ablaze – will define the destiny of your life.
This explains why there is a Torah portion known by
the name "After the Death." Why name a Torah portion with an odd title – "after
the death?" Why emphasize their tragic death?
The Torah is telling us that the "death" of Aaron’s
two sons – both the death itself, and "after the death" – teaches us a vital
lesson, actually a twofold lesson:
1) The search and need for transcendence, the craving
and yearning for a spiritual high is healthy and a necessary ingredient in the
human journey. All mans greatest achievements, his noblest acts, his deepest
loves – draw from the soul’s passionate fire.
2) Yet, as with all powerful things, great care must
be taken that the spiritual experience doesn’t "burn you up," but is integrated
in your life.
The fire of our souls, like any fire, can be the
source of sustenance (healthy fire) or… an inferno ("strange fire"). The
challenge is great. The choice is ours.
Therein lies the twofold positive lesson—derived from
two different Torah portions -- from the children of Aaron, both from their death
and "after the death:"
Their death teaches us how not to enter the Holy of
Holies uninvited, not to enter at our initiative, at any time we so choose, not
to enter as a result of our personal desire; "after the death" teaches us how to
enter – "with this shall Aaron enter the holy place" – with utmost humility,
with sensitivity and above all, total immersing and sublimating yourself into
the experience.24,000 students were destroyed in this period of time
due to their inability to co-exist.
The same is true when we have a strong opinion about a
given manner. The smarter you are, the more powerful your resolve, the more
convinced you are in the righteousness of your position, the greater the care
that needs to be taken to not hurt others in the process.
This also may be the greatest secret to a healthy
relationship or marriage: Your ability to transcend your own powerful position
24,000 students were destroyed in this period of time
due to their inability to co-exist. Their fervent passion and their gifts were
their undoing. We redeem their deaths during these 49 days by looking into our
passionate hearts, and learning the art of restraint: That ultimate greatness is
measured not by how right you are and by how great is your light, but by how you
allowed that greatness to be contained and integrated into other people’s lives.