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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Achrei Mot

Too Much of a Good Thing

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The tragic story of Aharon's sons Nadav & Avihu - the only case in the Torah where righteous individuals explicitly come to an untimely end - reverberates throughout many parshiyot. In Shmini we record their deaths; Acharei Mot begins by referring to it, Kedoshim hints at it; and even the census in Bamidbar, detailing the lineage of Aharon, states that they died childless.

While numerous reasons are given for their deaths, they can all be summed up by the first pasuk in our reading, B’karvatam lifnei Hashem, vayamutu. They came (too) close to G-d - & they died. All their actions were intended to add to the prescribed offering; entering the Mishkan when it was not called for; getting drunk; even refraining from having children, so that they could devote themselves 24/7; all these were done in an effort to supercharge their spirituality & come closer to the Almighty.

But how do we reconcile Nadav & Avihu’s fate with the opening pasuk of our second Sedra: "Kedoshim tihyu, ki kadosh ani Hashem Elokeychem; Be holy, for I, G-d, am Holy." If Hashem wants us to be kadosh/holy, a word which means, "to separate ourselves for a higher purpose" - then isn’t this exactly what Nadav & Avihu did?! So why were they punished?

I want to suggest that Nadav & Avihu were not so much punished, as they were the victims of their own actions. They took so much upon themselves, they so overloaded their circuits with such massive spiritual energy, that the whole system broke down, & they experienced burn-out. They came too close to the Heavenly fire &, despite their good intentions, their wings got singed & they crashed.

There is a profound lesson to be learned here. G-d surely wants us to get close to Him, to come under His wings & within His protective force-field. But if we get too close, if we cross the Divine line into the "red zone," we risk losing everything & plummeting into the depths of despair, or worse. And if we take the law into our own hands - deciding for ourselves, rather than reacting to the will of Hashem and doing what He wants us to do - than the gain is swallowed up by the loss.

This message is a timely one for our present situation. We want, of course, to pray communally, in minyanim - and the more the merrier, as we generally hold by the principle of "B'rov am, hadrat Melech," the larger the gathering, the more it honors the monarch. And we want to learn together as a group, in shiurim where we can share with others around us. But if this endangers our lives - and the lives of others - than we have to step back, and follow the directives of our spiritual leaders, who (hopefully!) follow the advice of the medical experts to contract our public activities and thus safeguard our lives.

Any competent doctor will tell you that prescriptions are carefully calibrated to bring relief from illness. If you are prescribed to take 2 pills, but instead you take 4 - assuming that you will now receive twice the relief - the exact opposite may result. Kedusha, the ultimate form of spiritual medicine, is sometimes best consumed in small doses.
Rabbi Stewart Weiss
Was ordained at the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, Illinois, and led congregations in Chicago and Dallas prior to making Aliyah in 1992. He directs the Jewish Outreach Center in Ra'anana, helping to facilitate the spiritual absorption of new olim.
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