Strange Fire, All-Consuming Commitment

By Rabbi Phyllis Berman

The traditional synagogue reading from the Torah for Shabbat Shemini includes the passage in which two sons of the High Priest, Aaron, bring "strange fire" as an offering to God, and are consumed in an instant as if they had become the burnt offering. (Lev. 10)

Though most traditional commentators focus on what Nadav and Abihu did "wrong" in offering "strange fire" that caused them to be consumed, I go in a completely different direction.

I think about "strange", that which is unfamiliar or unknown, like a "stranger" or an idea before it's become popular. I think about how innovators -- in science, in spirituality, in music and art, in loving -- are ahead of their time, inspired by and absorbed by that which most others might consider "strange". I think about how, especially when one is creative, one can become totally consumed by the creative process.

I think about how each of us desires to live fully, well-used, and that some people are fortunate to live each moment in that way; though we pray that everyone has a "full" life, it may be that "full" has more to do with quality than with length of time.

Perhaps that's why Aaron was "silent" after the death of his sons: perhaps he felt that bittersweet mixture of grief for the loss of his sons and pride/satisfaction for the richness of their lives. They were "consumed", as so many of us are, when we are blessed with meaningful lives.

Torah Portions: