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Shemini: The Right Thing at the Right Time

On the eighth day of the inauguration of the Mishkan, a day replete with celebration and immense joy, tragedy strikes. Nadav and Avihu, two of Aharon’s sons, have just finished assisting their father with the sacrifices for the day when they fill their fire pans with Ketores, “Va’yakrivu lifnei Hashem eish zarah asher lo tzivah osam,” and they bring a foreign fire into the Mishkan that they were not commanded to bring (10:1). Immediately, “vateitzei eish mei’lifnei Hashem, vatochal osam, vatamusu,” a Divine fire comes down and kills them (10:2).

Rashi is understandably puzzled by the same question that perhaps any of us would ask: What exactly did Nadav and Avihu do wrong that made them Chayav Misah? After eight consecutive days of service in the Mishkan overseeing and assisting in the process of the Karbanos, what was so bad about Nadav and Avihu wanting to bring Ketores? Was their enthusiasm in utilizing the Mishkan and its vessels for closeness to G-d really punishable by death?

Rashi explains, citing the Midrash in Vayikra Raba, that there are different opinions regarding the nature of Nadav and Avihu’s sin. R’ Eliezer posits that Nadav and Avihu were punished because they made Halachic rulings in Moshe’s presence, an egregious offense as outlined in Gemara Eiruvin (63a). The Gemara there specifically describes situations in which rendering Halachic rulings in one’s Rav’s presence is forbidden and punishable by death. By bringing their own fire, Nadav and Avihu defied Moshe’s words regarding the Heavenly fire that would descend on the Mizbeiach to consume all Karbanos.

Rashi provides an alternative explanation according to R’ Yishmael, which is that Nadav and Avihu’s sin was that they entered the Mishkan intoxicated. R’ Yishmael supports this idea by noting that immediately after this event, Hashem commands Aharon that no Kohanim may ever enter the Mishkan to engage in the Avodah when they are drunk. This must imply that Nadav and Avihu’s sin was that they had imbibed before entering the Mishkan.

While these explanations seem to satisfy Rashi, a careful reading of the Pasuk may further elicit curiosity. The Pasuk seems to tell us exactly what Nadav and Avihu did wrong. “VaYakrivu lifnei Hashem eish zarah asher lo tzivah osam,” they brought a foreign fire into the Mishkan, which was not commanded of them. The Gur Aryeh (10:2) clarifies that in either case, whether their core mistake was entering after drinking wine, or entering with their own fire in direct opposition to Moshe’s words regarding use of the Divine fire, the fire itself was considered foreign “Zarah” because of the context in which it was brought. This context was that the status of their behavior was “Asher lo tzivah osam,” actions that G-d had not commanded.

The Sforno further explains that the essence of Nadav and Avihu’s sin was in having done what could have been a positive act in a manner in which they were not commanded. Specifically, Hashem had commanded that no foreign Ketores offering be brought on the Mizbeiach HaZahav unless specifically commanded. Even if Nadav and Avihu had the best of intentions in wanting to further celebrate the inauguration of the Mishkan, even if they just wanted to come close to G-d and express this closeness through a Karban, Hashem had not commanded them, and they did not consult with Moshe or Aharon and acted of their own accord. For this, they were punished.

Regardless of how we understand their behavior, we can recognize that Nadav and Avihu seemed to have good and pure intentions. In the throes of the celebrations marking the Mishkan’s first week of functioning, these Kohanim and sons of Aharon were overjoyed, ecstatic, and filled with excitement about participating in the Avodah. Can we really blame them for imbibing, or for wanting to bring Ketores? Yet the Pasuk, as emphasized by multiple commentaries, underscores their mistake: they acted in a manner “asher lo tzivah osam” that G-d had not commanded. Even if the essence of their behavior was well intended, even if those same behaviors would have been acceptable and even laudable at a different time and in a different context, it was the right thing at the decidedly wrong time.

Hashem did not command Nadav and Avihu to defy their Rav by bringing their own fire, and He did not command them to enter the Mishkan under the influence of alcohol. In fact, the opposite was the case. Furthermore, there may be a time and place for bringing special sacrifices, such as Ketores, and even for voluntarily bringing a sacrifice outside of those specified in the Avodah. There is even a time and a place for drinking wine and celebrating. And, even then, there are rules and guidelines to be followed. Much of Torah observance is thusly executed. Though there is ample space for emotions and desire and voluntary engagement in Avodas Hashem, for making Mitzvos our own and finding ways to personalize our religious experiences, there is also a structure that gives form to the powerful force of spirituality. The Torah specifically prohibits adding to the Mitzvos, doing any additional commandments or rituals outside of the requisite 613, for this very reason. Hashem gave us a framework, and it is not only enough, it is perfect.

One of the challenges facing many families I work with is that they usually have deeply good intentions, but struggle to do the right thing at the right time. Parents often want to support their children, or express affection, and children want to connect emotionally, feel supported, and express affection in return. These goals are not contrary or antithetical to each other, and can easily be met when families find a synchronicity that allows for love and trust to flow symbiotically. The biggest challenge is often timing. When a child expresses hurt or anger because of something they’re going through, parents want to fix or problem solve – and perhaps that could help, just not at that moment. First, the child may need to know that his or her emotions are seen, and that they make sense. A child may ask for validation or express frustration when a parent is problem-solving and be met with surprise or consternation. “What’s wrong with me trying to help you?!” the parent wonders, shocked and hurt that their attempts to support their child are being rejected. Neither party is wrong – validation and problem solving are both important parts of this relationship – and yet, perhaps one party is doing something they were not asked to do at that moment – and this makes all the difference.

We likely do this in relationships all the time. We do something for our partner, child, or friend that we think they need or will enjoy, but perhaps we are not really listening to what they are really telling us that they want or need. Maybe precisely the thing we thought would be helpful in this moment is actually best saved for another time altogether.

How do we know what is the best and most effective thing to do in the moment? When it comes to other people and enhancing relationships, the best place to start may be in asking others what they need, want, or prefer. Rather than assuming, or using our own emotions and desires to guide what we think is best in the moment, it may better serve us and our loved ones for us to simply ask, “what do you most need or want right now? How can I be helpful/supportive/loving to you in this moment?”

Sometimes the hardest part of this is not in remembering to ask, but in accepting the answer. If a loved one says, “thank you for asking; what I need most right now is space/time/privacy,” we may feel hurt or rejected. Conversely, perhaps we are truly hoping they will tell us they want something from us that we enjoy giving. If their response is to ask us for something we are not in the mood to do, that becomes decidedly challenging.

L'havdil, these same principles apply in our relationship with G-d, and as such, in our Avodas Hashem, as well. Sometimes, the spirit may move us to want to do more in our Avodas Hashem. We may crave enhanced spiritual experiences, or question why we cannot perform certain Mitzvos, such as davening, or learning, or celebrating Shabbos, in a more “spiritually elevated” state, perhaps aided by certain substances, or the accompaniment of music, for example. It is fair to ask the question – and yet Hashem gives us the answer. He tells us what He most wants and needs from and with and for us in any given moment. The question is not “how do keep the Torah the way that I want?” the question must be, “how can I accept doing Hashem’s ratzon while finding a way to personalize the Mitzvos Hashem commanded?”

This week, consider where in your relationships (interpersonally or spiritually) you are struggling with accepting the notion of “asher lo tzivah osam.” Do you find yourself having a hard time accepting what your loved ones have asked for, or continuing to default to the ways you want to contribute to the relationship, rather than adhering to what is wanted of you? Where in your Avodas Hashem are you perhaps having the best of intentions, but finding it hard to do what the moment calls for? We all have the tremendous capacity to connect with each other and with Hashem in so many ways. More often than not, we are not lacking in the desire to connect, but stumbling in our misguided determination to do so on our terms, rather than on those set for us by the other entity to whom we are relating. In considering these ideas, may we all renew our ability to do the most right thing at the most right time in the best way we can to strengthen and fortify our relationships with others and with Hashem.

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