Each week we feature a different outstanding Florida Rabbi.
Rabbi Jonathan Kendall
Temple Beit HaYam
This week's sidra is a fine example of what can go wrong in the performance of ritual and the consequences which obtain from variations on that theme. Nadav and Avihu, two of Aaron's sons, offer an esh zara, a "strange fire" as a part of the sacrificial cult. On the very day of the Sanctuary's consecration, the apotheosis of their father's life, they decide to be creative - or, negligent, depending on which commentator is to be believed. They are immediately incinerated for their trespass. Moses avers that the Holy One will only be sanctified by those who are closest - Nadav and Avihu become object lessons and examples to insure no deviations from the prescribed ritual - and Aaron, no doubt shocked and filled with grief, is silent. It is a very dramatic and telling passage.
The core of this event is not centered on sacrifice or on following G-d's dicta painstakingly. No matter how we twist and turn it, animal sacrifice and its attendant rites were simply the means of propitiating the Deity during those times. We can read great meaning into it, but through the lenses of our day, it remains a primitive anachronism, the bane of Bar and Bat Mitzvah children and not too few Rabbis who must wrest some meaning from the text referable to contemporary hearts and minds. This parasha really revolves around revelation and how well we are able to understand what G-d communicates to us.
A very fine teacher of mine once taught that all religions believe in revelation; that is, that G-d speaks to us, either directly or through sacred texts and makes known the Divine expectations. The eternal question is: do we hear with the same precision with which G-d speaks? The sacrificial cult called for such fastidious attention to detail that some commentators suggest that Nadav and Avihu must have been under the influence. They knew specifically what they were supposed to do, but couldn't perform because they were drunk. Today, we see similar meticulous religious practice mirrored in the traditionalist stream where any variations invite censure, if not immolation. And yet, on a rational level, we know full well that many of our customs and rituals have been changed, if not by individuals then certainly by time and circumstance. These, too, might be subsumed under the rubric of revelation, which is really no more than G-d's plan articulated to us through both traditional and innovative media.
Religion, even ours, is an organic, living, breathing, evolving enterprise. To see it in stasis is to invite becoming a footnote in someone else's history book. Even my more ritually observant cousins teach that revelation doesn't end at Sinai, but continues through the interpretations of those who are keepers of the tradition. In a broad sense, we all are those custodians, irrespective of our ceremonial observance or lack thereof. Revelation is found today in the partnership, the covenant we enjoy with the Holy One. It is not the exclusive preserve of any one denomination. No one should claim that they hear as well as G-d speaks. That ceases to be an homage to G-d and becomes, instead, an idolization of us. That is not Judaism. That is an esh zara, a strange fire.