The Path of the Righteous
“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” ― Voltaire
Pesach is now merely a small dot in my rearview mirror and I’m delighted that my nouvelle cuisine is sans matzah but the festivals obsession on our right to question should never cease. Thus, our sages question the untimely death of Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aaron. They wonder how these two righteous young men committed a heinous crime by bringing an “esh zarah” – a foreign flame – to the altar of God. Furthermore, if they were motivated solely by purity of heart, why is their punishment so severe and immediate?
Although there are a multitude of approaches to answer this question, I want to focus on one approach that seems textually accurate. The Torah states: Vayakrivu lifnei Hashem esh zara asher lo tzivah otam – They brought before God an alien fire that He had not commanded them. In other words, although their act was motivated by piety, their error was in thinking that personal piety can override the dictates of God.
The amazing thing about this simple concept is that for some reason it is lost on today’s society. In a world where every nuance of the Torah is analyzed and contemplated, where even the minuscule Taggin – the crowns on the Torah letters are interpreted, strangely the literal and straightforward text is reduced to meaningless verbiage. The commentaries search for textual subtleties in order to interpret the crimes of Nadav and Avihu in a manner congruent to their life philosophy. They claim that the gravity of the sin was that they entered the sanctuary while under the influence of alcohol. Another opinion is that they failed to be subservient to their elders and issued a legal decision without consulting Moses or Aaron. Thus, their crime was akin to a disobedient son behaving in a defiling and deviant manner. For some, this approach makes it easier to justify the punishment and doesn’t restrain their obsession for personal stringency.
However, I believe it is paramount to address this issue by quoting the well-known statement of the Talmud: ein mikra yotze midei peshuto – A Torah verse cannot depart from its literal meaning. Even when there are alternative explanations, the literal interpretation may never be compromised or ignored. As important as it may be to heed the lessons derived from alternative possibilities, it is imperative never to dismiss the lessons derived from the text itself.
So what is our generation’s esh zara? What is the foreign flame of religiosity that is negatively influencing us? Can it be the brazen torch of those studying Torah who ignore the calling to join tzahal and who refuse to pursue a livelihood while relying on the community’s generosity for sustenance? Perhaps it is those who in their zealousness to perform the sacred rite of attending the funeral of a Torah sage yet by trampling over other human beings show their ultimate disrespect to the sanctity of life. This week’s Torah portion also mentions the laws of Kashrut – the laws that God in his infinite wisdom decided were sufficient to differentiate and elevate his people. Yet there are those who think it is of paramount importance to reinterpret God’s law and introduce standards of Kashrut that Moses himself would fail to recognize. Is that another foreign flame being mistakenly introduced as a sacred rite?
Is the obsession with stringency really the path of the righteous or is it the ruination of a sacred accord cloaked in the garb of extremism and stained by false illusions of piety? Maimonides writes that in life the best path is one of moderation. We should find a balance that is true to God and his teachings and void of excesses that are indeed alien in nature. Practicing Judaism needn’t be arduous and burdensome. Practicing Judaism should enlighten our minds and elevate the soul. For an observant Jew the essence of Torah and mitzvot should be more than ample. How unfortunate that many in society demand conformity to unnecessary stringency, yet fail to learn what it means to be Godly from the text itself.
In the past few days I received emails and phone calls about a new device that allows for turning on lights and electrical outlets on Shabbat. Although I have yet to digest exactly how it functions I am intrigued by its development. I am excited that there are still people willing to risk the ire of the moral right and find ways to promote an orthodoxy that is willing and able to use the technology to make Judaism more accessible and enjoyable. I am not advocating its acceptance without doing due diligence, but we should also never allow fear or derision to squash our progress and dreams. To some any innovation that permits electricity on Shabbat is indeed an esh zarah, an alien concept. I however see innovation as an important step in bridging the cultural divide between halachah and modernity.
It is never the question that we should be afraid of; fear is the tool of choice for those that don’t allow the question to be asked.
Rabbi Jack Engel