Here’s a thing we learned about in class concerning Nadav and Avihu (Thanks to Tamar Kamionkowski):

So as everybody knows, Nadav and Avihu are Aaron’s sons, next in line to inherit the position when he is gone. They are anointed and serve alongside their father during the dedication ceremony that marks the commencement of the Mishkan. But then something goes horribly and bizarrely wrong: Immediately after, they “offer alien fire” to God, and are burnt to ashes. Talk about a short term of service.

Here’s the thing–no one really knows what the Torah means by “alien fire.” A number of explanations have been offered throughout the ages. Most of the ones I’m familiar with posit some form of arrogance or carelessness in the brothers’ nature. Either they are guilty of showing careless disregard for the ritual of sacrifice prescribed by Moses, or they had the temerity to appear before God drunk on wine (inferred from the fact that Moses issues a commandment about priests not showing up for duty inebriated right after the brothers’ smoking corpses are carted away). The unifying element in these explanations is that they regard the flame that burns up Nadav and Avihu as a manifestation of divine anger.

But there’s another possible explanation, one that certainly didn’t occur to me when I was reading the episode but which makes a certain sense in light of the symbolic vocabulary of the sacrificial cult. Consider: Nadav’s and Avhihu’s bodies are consumed by fire from God, just like the fire that descended to consume the sacrifice at the climax of the dedication ceremony just a few psukim back. What is left of them is then taken outside the camp along with their priestly garments, just like the skin and bones of the sacrifice.

Philo, a Jewish philosopher of the Hellenistic period, sees what happened to Nadav and Avihu as basically positive. In effect, they chose to sacrifice their physical forms in an effort to get close to God. There is a sense that to some extent, they became the sacrifice. What does this imply about the animals in the sacrifice? That they aren’t receiving harm in place of the Israelites, as one might expect, but the benefit of getting close to God in their place, because we’re not allowed to sacrifice ourselves in that way. As tempting as it might be to seek a complete unity with God, such closeness is impossible for humans without the destruction of our physical form.

What protects the priest being so close to God is following every detail of the ritual–it provides them with a way to get close to God without being swallowed up. In the theology of the Priestly sources within the Tanakh, the blood of the sacrifice does the work of purification, cleansing the temple of impurities incurred by the actions of the community. The story of Nadav and Avihu gives one the sense that at a certain distance God doesn’t discriminate between human and animal blood–the divine aura is too powerful not to consume anything that gets that close.

I feel like what’s at issue in this story is intimacy, God’s desire for intimacy with humankind, as well as humans’ desire for intimacy with God–an intimacy that can never be consummated in this world without the destruction of the human partner. Because of this unfortunate fact, that intimacy has to be deferred, expressed with the utmost care, waiting until the world to come in which, unshackled from the limitations of body and form, the two can unite. It might be a little difficult to accept because of the unsettling imagery in which it is depicted in this story, but that imagery itself serves to underscore a point–that as much as God and humans may desire complete closeness to one another, it is not our place to sacrifice our bodies and lives to achieve it. At the end of the day, no matter what spiritual heights we may have reached, it is our duty to come back down the mountain and raise families and build institutions, because that is part of the work for which we have been created in the first place.

As someone who tends to experience emotions in a very raw and extreme way, it’s easy for me to see a little of myself in Nadav and Avihu. There are times, both in my loftiest pinnacles and my deepest depths, when I feel a yearning for connection with the divine so intense that all I want is to drift off into the infinite, never to return. What finally brings me back down to the ground in times like this is a sense of connection with those who are dear to me, as well as a sense of responsibility for the concrete details of my life, mundane as they may be. I would never want to abandon my sense of the vast otherness of God, even if I feel from time to time as if my separation from that mysterious Other will break me like an empty glass. At such times I try to comfort myself with the wisdom of this story, that that desire, impossible as it may seem, is also felt by God, and that the sense of estrangement I feel is God’s voice whispering gently into my ear, “Not yet.”