Thursday, March 24, 2011

Good Intentions are the Path to....

Our portion this week, parashat Sh'mini, begins with a short, distressing story about Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron:

א וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי-אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ, קְטֹרֶת; וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, אֵשׁ זָרָה--אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה, אֹתָם.1 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 LORD, which He had not commanded them.
ב וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה, וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם; וַיָּמֻתוּ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה.2 And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.

In typical, laconic Biblical style we get a lot of action, but not a lot of details explaining why these two young men were killed when offering incense to God. In contemporary Jewish life, we are so thrilled when young Jews want to be involved that we could not imagine punishing them for worshiping God in their own creative way.

However, at least in the Bible, we know from the earliest times of Cain and Abel, that God does not accept all sacrifices equally. Indeed, more than once are people killed in the Bible for offering inappropriate sacrifices. Due to the lack of detail in the Biblical narrative, a variety of commentators have offered reasons for why these two men were liable for death. Most commentators accuse them of egotism: offering strange fire instead of following the advice and instruction of their father. Some commentators assume that they came into the sanctuary drunk, an act prohibited for priests by the Torah. One midrash claims that they were not dressed appropriately for the occasion.

There is one commentary, however, that claims that their intentions were righteous, but misguided. The Or Ha-Hayyim "sees them as motivated by excessive piety. Out of their love for the divine, they tried to come too close to God who is like a raging fire." (Translation by Etz Hayim Torah Commentary) After approaching God with too much zeal, they were consumed by the Divine's Presence.

Sometimes our intentions matter, but sometimes they do not matter or do not matter enough. We are judged on the results of our actions and not their justifications. Whether Nadab and Abihu were compelled by malice, arrogance, apathy, or religiosity, they offered an inappropriate sacrifice and were punished for their transgressions.

As human beings in the world we always need to make sure that our best intentions lead to the best results through care, consideration, and consultation. This is the ultimate path of holiness and a functional society.

Shabbat Shalom!