This week’s Parashat Sh’mini begins with some rather troubling events. Two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, get in line to offer a burnt offering to God. Each one of them takes his firepan, puts fire in it, and places incense upon it. And then they bring what the Torah calls aish zarah, alien fire. The Torah is quick to note that God had not commanded them to bring such a thing to a burnt offering. Leviticus 10:2 states, “And fire came forth from the Eternal and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Eternal.”
The passage evokes a painfully harsh version of the God we know. No matter who you are, or what your intentions, if you make the wrong move, you die. The Rabbis have often tried to make some sense of this particular passage. For instance, Rabbi Ishmael stated that Nadab and Abihu died because they had entered the sanctuary after having become drunk with wine. Vayikra Raba states that they didn’t wash their hands or feet, as required, and that they weren’t wearing the proper garments. Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin tells a story in which Nadab and Abihu were once walking behind Moses and Aaron and gossiped to one another, stating that “These two elders will die, and we will lead the people!” Other commentators say that they died because they did not consult someone before going to offer the sacrifice.
For me, whether the mistake is bringing foreign fire or gossiping, God’s action is no easier to understand. These explanations feel like grasping at straws to keep theology intact. Rav Yitzchak Meir Alter, an eighteenth-century Hasidic Rabbi, taught, “The best of intentions cannot justify an act that is not approved by Heavenly command. Nadab and Abihu were punished for doing what they thought was a mitzvah, but it was not commanded by God.” This commentary teaches that even with the best of intentions, we can make really serious mistakes, and they can have even more serious consequences.
We cannot justify the mistake we make when we inadvertently harm or insult another—when the last thing a depressed friend needs is tough love, when we dashed someone’s dreams by giving them a reality check, when we gave uninformed and unsolicited advice or criticism. Our intentions do not save us from responsibility or justify our actions to friends and families, or other people whose feelings we have hurt, dreams we have crushed, reputations we smudged, confidences broken. While this message resonates for me in the realm of interpersonal interactions, I struggle to relate it to my work within my fellowship at the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education. The themes of mistakes, intentions, and forgiveness seem inappropriate in the context of something as weighty as the Holocaust and the historical events surrounding it. The themes of intention and forgiveness are difficult in the face of genocide and systematic elimination of a people, to say nothing of the attempt to wrestle with God in the face of such evil.
But on a more intimate scale, the parasha teaches a profound lesson. Rabbi Rami Shapiro teachers that each morning observant Jews say, Elohai neshama shenatata bi, tehora hi, “God the soul you have planted within me is pure.” Your soul, he writes, is pure and transparent to God. Yet how we express the soul in this world is often tainted by our ego. When our soul is stained by selfishness or stubbornness, the soul becomes opaque, and by our actions we no longer allow the divine light to shine through the once transparent soul. When we hide behind our intentions and do not understand the consequences of our mistakes, our souls are tarnished. When we rationalize our mistakes as good deeds, convince ourselves that what we did was for the good of others, or for ourselves, we clog up our soul, and impair its ability to function properly. We cannot hide behind our intentions or rationalize them as being for the greater good. When we say, “Yes he’s upset, but he needed to hear it,” or “Yes she’s upset, but I needed to say it,” or “It’s not my fault they took it the wrong way,” we are lying to ourselves and putting or needs before the consequences of our actions on others. Our ego can convince us that those that we have hurt somehow deserved it, are overreacting, or are misinterpreting. But our pure soul, transparent to God, knows better.
Nadab and Abihu did not get a chance to apologize for their mistake. Their mistake was far too great, and it was in direct contrast with heavenly law. But we, in our daily lives, have opportunities to apologize and make amends for our mistakes. Our small acts make big ripples. So when we are confronted with our mistakes, let us never hide behind the words, “good intentions.” And having been there, let us also forgive others for their mistakes and allow the divine light to shine through all of us once again.
Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow Michael E. Harvey is working at the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education.