And the Eternal spoke unto Moses, after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the Eternal and died.
The above verse seems perfectly innocuous and, on the surface, serves as a mere introduction to the laws of Yom Kippur service that follows. Much, however, lies beneath the surface. Some of the deepest secrets of Kabbala are hidden therein. Allow me to present them along the lines of Sex, Drugs and Rock n’ Roll.
The story of two eldest sons of Aaron—Nadab (Nadav) and Abihu (Avihu)—dying is told in the Torah portion of Shemini:
And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Eternal, which He had not commanded them. And there came forth fire from before the Eternal, and devoured them, and they died before the Eternal.
They were punished for bringing “strange fire” (or “alien fire”) before God. What was that “strange fire”? According to the literal meaning, they were supposed to wait for the fire from above to come down and consume the sacrifice. Instead, they brought profane—“strange”—fire, thereby disobeying God’s command. Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah, view this “strange fire” as a reference to the estranged woman, Lilith—the first wife of Adam. What is the connection, you may wonder? The Ari-zal explains that Nadab and Abihu collectively were the reincarnation of the first man, Adam (Adam HaRishon). The hint of this can be seen in the name of Abihu, or, in Hebrew, Avihu—av hu—“he is my father,” referring to the first father of all humanity, Adam. Another hint can be seen from the name of Nadab (NaDaB), spelled Nun-Dalet-Bet. These letters can be rearranged to spell Bet-Nun-Dalet—Ben Dalet, or four sons—a veiled reference to Adam and his three sons: Cain (Kayin), Abel (Hevel), and Seth (Shes). The Ari-zal says that these two sons of Aaron were two halves of Adam’s body. Together, they were a reincarnation of Adam and his three sons. They were destined to redeem Adam, Cain, Abel, and Seth from their sin and rectify their souls. Instead, they fell into the same trap and repeated their sin. But what was the sin? As the French say, cherchez la femme.
The primordial sin of eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was not the first trouble of Adam. When first created, he was created along with the female companion:
Male (Ish) and female (Ishah) created He them” (Genesis 1:27).
According to Midrashic sources, the name of the first wife of Adam was Lilith (Lilit). She insisted on playing the role of a dominatrix in her relations with Adam. When Adam refused to comply, Lilith left him and was transformed into a female demon. (In the terminology of Kabbalah, a demon is a form of negative energy, a power of evil. Male and female, in Kabbala, signify giver and receiver respectively. Thus a female demon signifies a form of negative energy that feeds off the actions of man).
Seeing that Adam was lonely, God said,
It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make a helpmate for him… And Adam said: ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’”
(Genesis 2:18, 23)
The Ari-zal explains that “this one” means “but not that one,” referring to Lilith.
After God had given Adam his second wife, Eve (Chavah), Lilith continued to come to Adam at night causing him wet dreams resulting in nocturnal emission (zerah levatola). Lilith used Adam’s seed to impregnate herself (spiritually speaking) and give birth to more demons. To translate this to contemporary language, Lilith used the creative (or procreative) energy of Adam to convert it into negative energy of self-indulgence. Lilith serves in Kabbalistic thought as a personification of sexual self-indulgence and self-gratification, divorced from its procreative purpose.
This brings us back to the “strange fire.” Male and female are called in Hebrew ish and ishah. The common root of these words is Alef-Shin —aish, “fire.” The difference between these two words are two letters – Yud and Heh. Yud is added to make the word ish for “man” and Heh is added to make the word ishah for “woman.” Together, Yud and Heh make a Divine name Yud-Heh (pronounce in vernacular as Kah). When a man marries a woman to pursue the Divine purpose be fruitful and multiply (pru u’rvu), the Divine name is embedded within them, as if to say that the Divine Presence dwells with them. However, if the relationship between a man and a woman is devoid of the Divine purpose and is solely for the purpose of self-gratification, what is left is just fire, a “strange fire.”
Passion is compared to fire. A passion that fuels the drive to fulfill the Divine purpose is constructive. A passion, which is devoid of a purpose, is an egocentric passion of self-aggrandizement or self-gratification—it is “strange fire.”
Nadab and Abihu were not married. Their sole desire was to get closer to God. Yet, that passion for spirituality, for unio mistico (devekut) was not tamed by the sense of the Divine purpose—transforming the physical into spiritual and making this lowly world an abode for the Creator. Therefore, their spiritual passion was called “strange fire.” Although their sin was of a much more subtle and refined nature, at its root, it was the same mistake as the one made by Adam.
In physics too, a fire burning in the combustion engine in a controlled manner moves the car forward. Fire, bursting out of the nozzles of a rocket engine and properly directed, propels the rocket into the sky. But a fire burning uncontrollably is destructive. At best, it’s a dissipation of energy and information. It’s a waste. Nadab and Abihu wasted their lives because their passion for the Divine was uncontrolled, their fire was not directed. They indulged in self-gratification, albeit spiritual but selfish nonetheless. As Moses tells Aaron, Nadab and Abihu were greater the Moses and Aaron themselves. What a waste!
One of the sins ascribed to Nadab and Abihu was the use of wine before carrying out a priestly service in the Tabernacle (Mishkan). The Sages of the Talmud say, Nadab and Abihu were inebriated while offering incense in the Holy of Holies. The Chasidic thought understands this inebriation metaphorically as they were drunk with love for their Creator, intoxicated by spirituality. They were on a spiritual high. So why is this is a sin? Once again, because of its egocentric nature.
According to one interpretation, the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was a grapevine. Eve squeezed its juice (which instantly fermented) into Adam’s hand, and he drunk it becoming intoxicated. Adam’s later reincarnation into Nadab and Abihu succumbed to the same mistake. Wine can be used for good or for bad. When shared in the company of friends, the wine opens hearts and enhances the conversation. When Jews drink, we say lechaim—to life! The Talmud says, when wine goes in, secrets of Torah come out (i.e., get revealed)—these are all positive uses of wine, which “gladdens the heart of man.” Moreover, wine libation was one of the sacrificial services in the Temple.
When wine is drunk for its own sake—to get drunk—it is destructive. Drugs used to get high are highly destructive! A man and a woman are put into this world not to get high in the process of self-gratification, but to get high while elevating the material, elevating the world. Once again, it is the self-gratification, self-indulgence, self-centeredness, i.e., egocentrism that is at the core of the evil. This was the sin of Nadab and Abihu. Although they were holy men who sought nothing but godliness, that was not their mission. They abandoned their mission of elevating the world for the sake of self-gratification, however lofty and spiritual. As we see from the punishment, it was a grave sin.
Rock n’ Roll
In Ezekiel’s prophetic vision of the Works of the Chariot, Ma’ase Merkava, he speaks of the burning angels, Seraphim, running and returning (ratzo vashov):
And the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning.” (Ezekiel 1:14)
They run up to God, burning up in self-nullification, and then returned to resume their place and their mission. This rhythm of running and returning—ratzo vashov—is fundamental to life (heartbeat and breathing are reflections of this rhythm – see my post Paradox of the Red Heifer) and to time itself (see my essay, On the Nature of Time and the Age of the Universe). The dynamic of running and returning—ratzo vashov—is a key to our Divine service. We should strive to get closer to God, get higher in our appreciation of the Divine, but we must always return to our post and to our mission to elevate the world, not just ourselves. This running and returning, rocking forward and rolling back, is the fabric of our daily life. We rock when we pray to God in the morning, but then we roll back to go to work and make an honest living to support our families and make this world a better place.
Nadab and Abihu had only half of this “rock n’ roll” formula—ratzo—running up to God, burning up in self-nullification… and burn up they did. They neglected the other half, shov, return, roll-back. Ecstasy is only good when it is brief and serves the purpose of adding inspiration to our daily tasks, which otherwise would be routine. Ecstasy for its own sake, be that through sex or drugs, is always destructive. It is a “strange fire” that can burn you.
Here is to rock n’roll—when you rock, don’t forget to roll. Lechaim – to life!
PS I certainly do not wish to make light of the tragic story of the death of two sons of Aaron. Our sages tell us, they were both great tzadikim (holy and righteous people), whose only wish was to cleave to God. As mentioned above, Moses himself told his brother, Aaron, that Nadab and Abihu were greater than themselves. There is a tradition that they died by the kiss of God. Their tragic death was mourned by the entire nation. Moreover, our sages teach that those who weep over the death of two sons of Aaron will never weep over their own children, God forbid! While the lessons of their subtle mistake are too important not to learn, we need to remember the general principle that whenever Torah criticizes our forefathers and other great Biblical personalities, we have to keep in mind that their mistakes were loftier than our good deeds (mitzvot)!