black and white drawing of nadav and avihu being thrown backwards by a flash of light
"The Two Priests Are Destroyed" by James Tissot, ca. 1900, shows Nadav and Avihu being struck down in this week's Torah portion, Shemini.

This deadly tale shows a path to mutual respect for youths and their elders

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Leviticus 9:1-11:47
II Samuel 6:1-7:17

The troubling story of the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, in this week’s parashah strikes me very differently this year. I am blessed to be the mother of three adult children. It is clear that all three (and their partners) are extraordinary people, and I have profound respect for their values and the life paths they are crafting for themselves.

And yet sometimes I am aware that their view of the world is different from mine. How could it be otherwise? I have lived decades longer than they have. The new and ever-changing world in which we live is their native landscape, and they can glimpse historical developments that will unfold long after my death. How could our perspectives not be different?

In traditional societies, it is assumed that elders are wiser than the young, and indeed the Hebrew word for elder, zaken, connotes wisdom. By contrast, American society has tended to idolize youth, especially youthful beauty, failing to honor the wisdom of age. I wonder whether there is a golden mean and a path of wisdom that lies between the unfaltering assumption that elders know best and the equally unquestioned notion that the young are to be admired in every way.

I bring this question to the disturbing story of the destruction of Nadav and Avihu. The Torah (Leviticus 10:1-11) tells us that, just after Aaron and his sons were installed as kohanim (priests), Nadav and Avihu “offered before God strange fire that God had not commanded of them” (10:1), that fire came forth and they died.

Traditional commentators have searched the story for meaning. What was the sons’ sin that resulted in their death? What could have drawn such a harsh judgment from God, just after the glorious moment of the initiation of the sacrificial rite under the leadership of the priestly family?

An early midrash (Vayikra Rabba 20) lays out four possible explanations for the punishment:

1. The sons came into the holiest area of the desert sanctum unbidden, failing to honor the prescribed boundaries governing access to holy space.

2. They offered a sacrifice at their own initiative, not in response to God’s command, again, exhibiting arrogance and self-centeredness, rather than honoring their elders, the emerging tradition and God.

3. They brought “strange fire” — again, taking independent initiative rather than respecting tradition, or perhaps, choosing a method that would draw attention to themselves rather than highlighting God’s power to ignite the sacrifice.

4. They acted as individuals, not in partnership, as the text says that each brought his own fire pan for the offering.

None of these possibilities answers the question in an entirely satisfying way, and the proliferation of explanations indicates that the commentators were also not convinced. This year I am struck that God takes the side of the elders, condemning the (perhaps) arrogant, individualistic, independent-minded young people to death.

This is, after all, the critique that elders always level at those who come after them. The young ones fail to respect tradition or our own wisdom. They substitute their own independent judgment for that which they have received from those who came before. They think they know everything (and hence don’t need to turn to us as repositories of wisdom). And they are self-centered, even failing to collaborate with one another. This is exactly the critique that people of my generation level at millennials.

The young people in our time may, in fact, tend toward individualism, independence and even excessive confidence (outwardly, at least). The Torah’s emphasis on honoring tradition, humility, and the need for divine guidance is eternal wisdom that today’s young people definitely need. But our older generation, too, has much to learn from today’s young people, who may grasp the challenges of a rapidly changing world better than we do. And they may be able to bring the blessings of their idealism, energy and ingenuity to address problems that afflict us all. Perhaps there is humility work for us to engage in, checking our instinctive judgment of those younger than ourselves and being ready to learn from their wisdom as well as expecting them to learn from ours.

I am reminded of the beautiful closing passage of the Haftarah on Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat just before Passover, two weeks ago. When the prophet said, “God will turn the hearts of the parents toward their children, and the hearts of the children toward their parents” (Malachi 3:24), he sought to direct us to a blessed time of more harmony and mutual understanding among the generations and among all people. May we all work to bring this vision closer to reality.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator, justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. She leads efforts on racial justice and inclusion for the Conservative movement and lives in Los Altos. Learn more about her work at