In the book of Leviticus, Aaron’s sons are killed for bringing a “strange fire” before God.
On the opening day of the tabernacle, after the first sacrifices have been brought, Nadav and Avihu bring a sacrificial offering of their own design, an offering that the Torah says they had “not been commanded to bring”.
Commentators have sought to explain why, suggesting that perhaps because the incident is followed by the instruction to not enter the sanctuary when drunk, it was as a punishment for drunk and disrespectful behaviour.
Most other commentaries focus on the act of bringing the strange fire.
Samson Raphael Hirsch says: “Their sin was not consulting their father, ultimately making themselves the highest authority and disregarding the tradition of their elders”.
Hirsch and others make the assumption that someone who does something different or diverts from the received wisdom is doing it out of arrogance or disrespect.
There is no reason to assume Nadav and Avihu acted with bad intentions, but the Torah and its interpreters suggest even well-meaning acts can be misread if you don’t help someone else understand what you are doing.
When people bring ‘strange fire’ into communal spaces and suggest new ways of doing things, perhaps the story’s painful end is also cautionary. It reminds us we all have the potential to consume others’ enthusiasm or new ideas with the punishing weight of established norms.
Nadav and Avihu’s story is about how we respond to new and different ideas and the potential catastrophic consequences of not giving people the benefit of the doubt.
- Deborah Blausten is a rabbinic student at Leo Baeck College