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Sermon: May 5, 2017

D’var Torah for Parashat Acharei Mot

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

The story of Acharei Mot, this week’s Torah portion (“After the Death,” Leviticus 16:1—18:30), picks up with the aftermath of the disastrous events described a couple of portions earlier. In that portion, Shemini, set in the midst of the dedication of the Tabernacle in the desert, we read of the tragic death of Nadav and Avihu, two of the High Priest Aaron’s four sons, who were killed while attempting to offer their own sacrifices. The Torah tells that for this offering, one in fact “which God had not commanded them,” Nadav and Avihu were using eish zarah, “a strange fire.” As they drew near with their offering, a flame leaped out of the altar and consumed them in full view of Aaron, Moses and the entire congregation.

While the Torah offers no reason for this punishment other than that they did something they were not supposed to, rabbinic interpretations offer several possibilities. Some say that Nadav and Avihu might have been intoxicated, or perhaps that they were trying to contravene Moses’ and Aaron’s authority. Some rabbis fault the eish zarah, explaining that this “strange fire” came from the kitchen rather than from the eternal flame at the altar. Still others explain that, unlike Moses and Aaron, who worked in tandem with one purpose and one goal in mind, Nadav and Avihu worked separately, each trying to outdo the other in importance and impression.

In comforting Aaron, Moses does not blame the young men; rather, he says that it is “through those who draw near to God that God’s holiness appears.” Always charitable and forgiving, Moses prefers to see the pure motivation behind his nephews’ behavior. Aaron accepts the consolation, yet the questions persist—both in his mind and ours.

Were Nadav and Avihu wrong to try to draw near to God? Was there perhaps a barrier, some obstacle between their intentions and actions? Or did Nadav and Avihu simply draw too close?

In the Greek mythology story of Daedalus and Icarus, in trying to escape from the rocky island on which they were imprisoned, Daedalus constructs wings for himself and his son, taking feathers and gluing them to a frame with bees’ wax. Exuberant in flight, Icarus flies too close to the sun. Understandably, the wax melts and Icarus falls to his death in the sea. There is a simple lesson to this story: Keep a safe distance from the source of power and energy, lest you burn.

Yet that has not stopped people from trying to “draw near to God,” to be holy, to sense holiness, if only for a moment or two. Using various methods, from fasting to dancing, from pain to ecstasy, from monastic isolation to communal immersion, the goal has always been the same: To reach a state of unity with the Divine.

For some, nothing short of martyrdom suffices; even among Jews, the highest, the holiest, the most enviable form of death is while pronouncing the Sh’ma, the song of God’s unity.

So the question surrounding Nadav and Avihu’s death still stands, a mystery that defies simple answers. What did they do that was so displeasing in God’s eyes?

Drawing near to God is not the problem. It’s in how one tries to do it.

And in almost no other part of the world is this problem most visible than in the Middle East.

There are few places on earth where I feel closer to God than in the Land of Israel. Whether in the desert, surrounded by barren, eroded mountains, or in the rolling, lush green hills of the Galilee; whether at the Western Wall—remnant of the Holy Temple of our ancient people in our ancient and holy capital city of Jerusalem; or at the military cemetery on Mount Herzl, where the defenders of the modern State of Israel are buried—wherever I am, I seem to hear God’s calling in the wind, God’s voice in the surrounding silence. The fervent, tearful prayer of men and women at the Kotel (the Western Wall), the call of the muezzin from the mosque and the tolling of bells of the many churches—sometimes all at once—remind us that this Land has been touched by God. Here the earth itself is holy. As I cup it in my hands and let it trickle between my fingers I feel its searing power. Soft as baby’s skin in some places and rough as an old man’s beard in others, this sacred soil holds within it intense power. Our people have always drawn strength and faith from it. Nowhere more than in the Land of Israel do I understand better the connection between God, adama—earth—and Adam, the first human being.

I know I am not the first to feel this sacred connection. For thousands of years, this narrow strip of land has bridged civilizations, has been home to countless religions, and has drawn to it millions of pilgrims on their sacred journeys.

But the Land of Israel has also seen more than its share of war and bloodshed, all in the name of God. Its soil has been hallowed by the blood of hundreds of thousands who tried to draw near to their God, who came to walk in the footsteps of judges, prophets, kings and messiahs. But among those who came in search of holiness were also some who were more than willing to prove their faith by killing others and spilling the blood of those who did not share their faith and fervor.

Still today, a fragile balance of faiths exists in Israel. Try moving a chair allocated to one denomination to a corner of the roof given over to another. The commotion might erupt into a full riot, and possibly even evolve into an outright international crisis, before tempers cool again.

Separating between politics and religion in Israel is impossible. Religious fervor and nationalistic fervor are one and the same here.

And the fire burns.

Some people blame God and religion. But that’s not where the fault lies. The problem is in us.

It’s a problem when we use religion to gain power over others.

It’s a problem when we use religion to enforce our own views on others.

It’s a problem when we don’t recognize the diversity of human perception and the complexity of faith.

This week’s portion reminds us of the fate of Nadav and Avihu, whose entire approach to the altar was problematic. They each wanted more than their fair allotment; they wanted more power than even Moses and Aaron. It wasn’t only that they used “foreign fire,” unholy means, to achieve their goals. Their purpose to begin with was wrong too: It wasn’t to prove God’s power, but rather to own holiness and to extol their own individual supremacy.

Perhaps that is why the portion now picks up with further instructions regarding offering sacrifices. The proper way and the wrong way are clearly illustrated, with the ultimate message that no one can claim sole possession of holiness. Every individual has the Divine image within him- or herself. Each of us has a role and a place in the delicate balance between heaven and earth, between the sacred and the profane, between holy and evil.

Perhaps, if we take the lessons of Acharei Mot to heart, we may yet live to see peace in the Middle East.

© 2017 by Boaz D. Heilman

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