"The Two Priests Are Destroyed" by James Tissot, ca. 1900, shows Nadav and Avihu being struck down in this week's Torah portion, Shemini.
"The Two Priests Are Destroyed" by James Tissot, ca. 1900, shows Nadav and Avihu being struck down in this week's Torah portion, Shemini.

Important lessons on whether to go for it, or to look before we leap

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Leviticus 9:1–11:47

“Look before you leap!” “She who hesitates is lost!” “Slow and steady wins the race!” “Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead!”

When I stand on the threshold of yet another (seemingly) major decision, these famous and conflicting words of wisdom often engage in a Battle Royale in my mind. Which way are we to go? How do we dive into life’s challenges and opportunities without getting burned?

Our Torah portion from Leviticus and its accompanying haftarah (2 Samuel 6:1–7:17) paint unusually parallel portraits of the dangers that can befall even the most well-meaning people when they leap before they look.

“Fire came forth from before the Eternal and consumed the burnt offering … and all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces.” (Lev. 9:24)

So far, so good. The priestly rituals in the newly dedicated Tabernacle seem to be working well and according to plan.

But then …

“Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Eternal strange fire, which had not been enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Eternal and consumed them; and they died …” (Lev. 10:1-2)

This scene is nothing short of a four-alarm fire, a conflagration indicated by the quadruple appearance of the Hebrew word for fire, “eish.” It’s a calamity, the origins of which the commentators have never determined with certainty.

Nadab and Abihu are generally thought to have been acting outside the norm with their unbidden offering, flouting the barely established priestly order and literally playing with fire.

Were they arrogant? Disdainful of the elders whom they imagined replacing? Or were they swept up in a current of zealousness that, as often happens, led to unintended and disastrous consequences?

Second Samuel describes another moment of high ceremony, as King David (in about 1000 BCE) brings the Ark of the Covenant toward Jerusalem amid great pomp and pageantry, to establish the Holy City as the religious hub of the emerging nation.

But then …

“[T]he oxen nearly upset [the cart carrying the Ark], and Uzzah [son of Aminadab, in whose keeping the Ark had been] reached out for and seized hold of the Ark of God. The Eternal grew furious with Uzzah, and God struck him down on the spot, because of his disrespect [or error); there he died, next to the Ark of God.” (2 Samuel 6:6-7)

We have a little more explanation for this tragedy compared to the incredibly mysterious Leviticus story, but we are still left with a mighty puzzle. Uzzah’s instincts appear innocent and correct — he is protecting the Ark from danger! Yet, another son of a high-ranking man dies after coming too close to Divine Power. And we, like the onlookers, are left shaken and distressed.

The reactions of the leaders are fascinating in both accounts. Moses springs into somewhat frenetic and military-like action; Aaron is famously silent; and David is so terrified he won’t go near the Ark for months.

That may be an integral point of these deeply resonant stories — the human dignitaries receive grave, heart-stopping warnings about the tendency among those with power to overreach and imagine themselves on a level with God.

That the victims in these legends are the sons of important men also suggests that crises of succession ensue when egos run wild among those charged with the greatest and most delicate of responsibilities. The collateral damage is shocking, but both stories are checks on the potential of powerful people to fly too close to the sun and be irrevocably burned.

Teachers of Mussar, a transformative Jewish spiritual practice based on classic Jewish texts, identify primary aspects of our personalities called soul-traits (in Hebrew middot, singular middah) that, when considered closely, can increase self-awareness and restore harmony to one’s inner life and outer relationships.

The stories of Nadab, Abihu and Uzzah offer examples of the soul-trait of zerizut, defined variously as enthusiasm, zest, alacrity or zeal. Mussar masters almost always encourage practitioners to increase zerizut. Most of us could benefit greatly from an infusion of enthusiasm in our work, our studies, our building of connections and our proactivity in helping with tikkun olam, repair of the world and tikkun hanefesh, repair of our souls.

Most of the teachings on zerizut follow a “he who hesitates is lost” approach. We’re enjoined to hurry to do mitzvot, to fulfill the Will of God, to make best and efficient use of our days on Earth to live as fully and as righteously as we can.

“You must know,” said the 16th-century Mussar classic “Orchot Tzaddikim,” “that the trait of zerizut is the foundation of all the traits,” for without enthusiasm, how can we accomplish anything at all?

To be fair, sometimes other middot are named as the foundation for all others, such as “order” or “humility” — they all interact with one another very artfully. (See Alan Morinis’ “Everyday Holiness” for a seminal primer on this wonderful subject).

A much older, beloved teaching on zeal comes from Proverbs 6:6-8, where we see, “Look to the ant! Study its ways and learn. Without leaders, officers or rulers, it lays up its stores during the summer, gathers up its food at the harvest.”

To bolster zerizut, we should be like the tiny, immensely strong ant, whose alacrity for performing life’s tasks is really remarkable.

But the passages from Leviticus and Second Kings appear to warn against an excess of zerizut.

There we see enthusiasm out of balance, in three young men who pay with their lives when caution deserts them. As Proverbs also teaches: “The thoughts of the zealous are superfluous, and those who are hasty reap only loss.” (Proverbs 21:5)

So, we ask again: Which is it?

Do we go for it or let it go? Leap first, ask questions later? Or proceed with care, though the moment may pass us by?

Zerizut in measured amounts is absolutely essential to achieving the healing we and the world so desperately need. But we are fairly warned: The fires of zealousness can erase the good intentions of enthusiasm. Experience alone will tell us where, and whether, we have crossed the line.

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at [email protected].