Death in the Service of G-d

Rabbi Reuven Mann

A moment of great joy can quickly turn into one of tragedy and loss. This is what happened at the inauguration of the Mishkan, as recounted in this week’s Parsha, Shemini. In one instant, “A fire went forth from before Hashem and consumed upon the Altar the elevation-offering and the fats; all the people saw and sang glad song and fell upon their faces.” The people were filled with happiness that Hashem had accepted their offering.

But immediately after, another fire came forth which spelled disaster. “The sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire pan, they put fire in them and placed incense upon it; and they brought before Hashem an alien fire that He had not commanded them. A fire came forth from before Hashem and consumed them, and they died before Hashem.”

This story presents great difficulties. Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu were considered great and G-d fearing men entirely dedicated to serving Hashem in accordance with His commandments. It is unthinkable that they would brazenly commit a sinful action in the Sanctuary. We must assume that their trespass was unintentional and mistaken.

Interestingly, some commentators who wrestle with this problem say that their mistake was caused by the effects of wine. Their reasoning is based on the fact that immediately after their bodies were removed from the Mishkan, a special prophecy came to Aaron prohibiting the consumption of wine when engaging in the Temple Service. “Hashem spoke to Aaron saying: ‘Do not drink intoxicating wine, you and your sons with you, when you come to the Tent of Meeting, that you do not die—this is an eternal decree for your generations’.”

One might get the impression from this that the Torah is absolutely opposed to the consumption of alcoholic beverages. But that is not the case. In fact, the Psalmist declares that “Wine gladdens the heart of man.” And it is the beverage of choice one should use when reciting Kiddush and Havdala on Shabbat and Yom Tov. (Our celebration of freedom at the Passover Seder enjoins the drinking of four cups of wine.) Thus, there are times that wine is called for and times when it should be avoided. However, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it and it, in fact, can have significant benefits.

This is in line with the Torah teaching of moderation. The Rambam in Hilchot Deot outlines the proper way a person should conduct himself in all of his activities. He insists that one should avoid going to extremes, either of indulgence or of deprivation. In recognition of some people’s desire to totally renounce any and all forms of carnal gratifications he says; 

“Lest someone say, ‘Since envy, desire, honor and the like, are a wrong path and drive a person from the world, I shall separate myself from them to a very great degree and distance myself from them to the opposite extreme–so that he will not eat meat, nor drink wine, nor live in a pleasant home, nor wear fine clothing, but, rather, sackcloth and coarse wool and the like–just as the idolatrous priests do. This too is a bad path, and it is forbidden to walk on it. Whoever follows this path is called a sinner…’”

At first glance, this seems difficult. Most religiously inclined people would praise a person who gives up all the “base” pleasures and lives on the most basic level of subsistence. Judaism is unique in that it has no tolerance for this seeming Tzadik of self-negation, and deems him a Rasha (Wicked).

Contrary to what many people intuitively believe, the renunciation of joy and the infliction of pain constitute no valid service of Hashem. He never asked for that. He specifically informed His people that he was bringing them to a goodly land filled with all good things:

“It shall be that when Hashem, your G-d, brings you to the land that Hashem swore to your forefathers, to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, to give you–great and good cities that you did not build, houses filled with every good thing that you did not fill, chiseled cistern that you did not chisel, orchards and olive trees that you did not plant, and you shall eat and be satisfied—beware for yourself lest you forget Hashem Who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.” (Devarim 6:10). 

The verse makes clear that Hashem did not bring the Jewish People to an empty and desolate place where they would have had to endure a spartan existence.

The explanation can be found in the Book of Bereishit which describes the nature of man. He is unique in that he was created in the “Image” of G-d and possesses a special soul. But he was also created from the “dust of the earth” and is an instinctual being. It is because of the physical makeup of man that he possesses free-will, for he must choose between the dictates of reason and those of the desires. But man is not an angel, nor can he seek to live like one. He has compelling earthly drives which cannot be denied.

Man’s challenge is to learn how to control and satisfy his urges in a manner which is beneficial and which enables him to dedicate the bulk of his psychic energy to obtaining wisdom and perfecting his soul.

Judaism maintains that one should not abandon this world, but should taste its pleasures in a disciplined and intelligent manner. The essence of holiness lies not in the ability to eschew all indulgence, but to partake of and enjoy that which is right for you. As the Torah commands, “You shall eat and be satiated, and you shall bless Hashem your G-d for the goodly land which He has given you.” May we merit to reach this exalted goal.

Shabbat Shalom.