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.

His sons consumed by fire, Aaron teaches us a silent lesson

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Leviticus 9:1-11:47

Following a description of an elaborate, weeklong ordination ceremony for Aaron and his four sons, in Shemini the Book of Leviticus turns to a brief but highly disturbing episode that involves the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, two of the high priest’s children.

In what appears to be a spontaneous — but unsanctioned — offering to their Creator, Nadav and Avihu step forward and present “strange fire” (eish zarah) to God. As a consequence, God immediately sends forth a fire that consumes them.

Their father is silent, and Moses tells Aaron and their brothers not to mourn them.

Yet what exactly did Nadav and Avihu do that was so irreverent and sacrilegious it warranted divine retribution? Why would God obliterate devoted priests who had earlier (Exodus 24:9-11) ascended Mount Sinai with Moses, Aaron and 70 elders to receive a direct “vision” of God?

The Torah doesn’t tell us explicitly what Nadav and Avihu did to cause them to be struck down so dramatically. Not surprisingly, commentators throughout the centuries have used their imaginations to speculate about what heinous transgression they might have committed.

There are some rabbinic midrashim that see the brothers as guilty of egotism: Each took his own fire pan to make an offering, consulting neither with each other nor with Aaron.

There are others that accuse the priests of entering the sanctuary drunk, or of being so casually dressed that they showed profound disrespect for their surroundings.

Other commentators interpret the “strange fire” offered by Nadav and Avihu as a symbol for their ambition, their impatience to succeed Moses and Aaron as leaders of the people of Israel.

But some interpretations are more sympathetic toward the two men. One Kabbalistic view of the scene sees Nadav and Avihu as motivated by a desire to get closer to God.

Dissatisfied with the rituals and practices of their religion, the young priests’ zeal and passion to unite with God (devekut) was so strong that it drove them to cross a boundary that their father Aaron — who was wiser and more cautious — would never transgress.

The Hebrew Bible describes God numerous times as a “consuming fire” (eish ochalah). When Nadav and Avihu get too close to God, they end up being devoured by God. It is not sin, but a lack of spiritual maturity, that results in their engulfment.

Whether their internal motivations were suspect or understandable, the violent deaths of Nadav and Avihu are still traumatic. Does that explain why their father Aaron doesn’t utter a word after the conflagration? Why does the text make a point of saying, “And Aaron was silent”? (Exodus 10:3)

The Torah usually does not call attention to someone not speaking. And when we want to understand the emotions and the interior lives of biblical characters, we almost always have to do that by inference.

When we find the patriarch Isaac wandering silently and alone several chapters after his father, Abraham, tries to sacrifice him in the Akedah episode, it is anybody’s guess what he is feeling or thinking. Is he experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder? Has he gone mad? Or is he trying to reflect on and reorient his life after having experienced such an unsettling event?

Abraham himself is silent after God tells him to offer up his beloved son on a mountain. Moses is silent when God tells him to ascend Mount Nebo to die. Do they refrain from speaking because they represent paragons of faithfulness, humbly and silently submitting to the divine will?

So why is Aaron silent in the aftermath of his sons’ deaths? The Torah doesn’t tell us, though it does make a point of highlighting that fact. Is Aaron humbly accepting God’s judgment, or is the high priest trying to make sense of what has just happened to his children, himself and his family?

There is great ambiguity in Aaron’s silence. As a result, the Torah seems to be suggesting that there are sometimes more possible meanings in silence than in speech, more poetry — and pathos — in a moment of stillness than in a lifetime of words.

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa Valley and the founding rabbi of the New Shul in New York City. He is also the author or editor of several books including "Gonzo Judaism" and "God at the Edge."