This week’s Torah portion contains a very sad and tragic event. At the inauguration of the Tabernacle/Mishkan the sons of Aaron, the High Priest were struck down and died. In the flash of a moment, what was supposed to be a joyous and awesome event meant to be celebrated by all became mournful, sad and somber.
What exactly Nadav and Avihu did wrong is up for debate among Jewish thinkers throughout the ages who look for clues in the text to indicate their sin. For instance, the fact that Aaron was told immediately afterwards that he should not enter the Mishkan intoxicated may hint that his kids did exactly that and were punished for it. The simplest explanation however would be from the text itself, when describing their incense offering and stating that they brought אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם- “a strange and unauthorized fire that (God) did not command them (to bring)”.
But these and other explanations seem a bit wanting given the suddenness and severity of the Divine punishment of death. It is especially troubling in our day-and-age when anybody who goes around speculating punishments from God is in for a lot of scorn and contempt.
But to gain some sort of lesson from it I turn to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l who points out the distinctions between two important institutions in Judaism: The Prophet vs. The Kohen/Priest. I will not enumerate them all but just mention a few of his ideas which I took liberties to edit for clarification.
1 – The role of priest was dynastic, that of prophet was charismatic. Priests were the sons of Aaron; they were born into the role. Parenthood had no part in the role of the prophet as illustrated by the simple fact that Moses’ own children were not prophets.
2 – The priest wore robes of office. There was no official uniform for a prophet.
3 – The role of the priest did not change over time. There was a precise annual timetable of sacrifices that did not vary from year to year. The prophet by contrast could not know what his mission would be until God revealed in to him. Prophecy was never a matter of routine.
4 – There is nothing personal about the role of a priest. If one – even a High priest – was unable to officiate at a given service, another could be substituted. Prophecy was essentially personal. The sages said that “no two prophets prophesied in the same style” (Sanhedrin 89a). Hosea was not Amos. Isaiah was not Jeremiah. Each prophet had a distinctive voice.
5 – Priests constituted a religious establishment. The prophets were not an establishment but an anti-establishment, critical of the powers-that-be.
When we view these differences and others laws that pertain exclusively to Kohanim/Priests, we get a clear picture of their role as opposed to the role of the Prophet. Whereas the Prophet is a free-spirit of sorts – no official clothes, office or lineage; a person unique to his time and place telling each generation and community what they need to hear – the Priest on the other hand is much more rigid, unchanging and tight. His office and work is completely and wholly regulated. How and what he sacrifices, the direction he walks in the Temple, the clothes he wears – it’s all very precise and exact with no room for individuality. It is a very specific club for a very specific family.
Truth be told, both roles are essential in any society. We need our Prophets and we need our Priests. We need Prophets: those unique people with vision and individuality who go against the grain of their culture or group and tell the powers that be – and the lemmings that follow them – of their errors and destructive behavior. We need people like prophets who are willing to buck the system, step out of the box and tell it like it is.
At the same time we need Priests: those unchanging symbols of nationhood who are two dimensional and act as the flags and icons of a people. Symbols that all the various and different parts of a nation can project on to and be part of.
This is why Queen Elizabeth had her staying power for all 70 years of her reign. There was not one iota of individuality about her. She dressed basically the same – only in different colours, always carrying that hand bag and wearing a hat when not donned in her crown. She didn’t offer her personal opinions, she waved the way Royals were supposed to wave, she didn’t lose herself or show her personal side or express deep emotions on either side of the spectrum of utter joy or great sorrow. She was a flag and symbol and all the different parts of Britain – home-born or immigrant – felt a connection to her because of it.
This is what the Priests represented for Jewish people. And this is what was so wrong about Nadav and Avihu bringing in something clearly not commanded or demanded by God. Their job and their role was not to get creative, individual, unique and do their own thing. Not ever and certainly not on Inauguration Day when the whole institute of Priesthood was being established.
Their role was clearly not one of being artsy where their inspirational side gets the best of them with “hey, let’s try this” exuberance. Nor should they have been downing a couple shots to loosen up so their creative juices can flow and try something different in the Temple service. No, this was not part of the script. As such their death was the sad reaction and outcome to a pair of men who completely lost sight of their raison d’être and the office which they were to represent.
It was a terrible loss to the Israelites when they were taken, but one that got the lesson across in a very stark fashion. Every person has their role, their potential, their expertise and their contribution. We are not all identical and we should not try to be something we are not. When we stray afar and outside of our God-given talents, unfortunately destruction ensues. Trying to be something you’re not crushes the soul and destroys the spirit.
On the other hand when we stick to the plan, when we see our potential and talents and act on them, then we fulfill our place and role in our families, in our communities and in society around us. We then become like Kohanim/Priests or Prophets – as the case may be – and become conduits to bringing an awareness and message of God into our world.
Trust what I say
And do what you’re told
Baby, and all your dirt
Will turn into gold