For the last several weeks, we’ve been reading in the Torah about the preparations for the Tabernacle and the sacrifices that will be made there. We didn’t have regular services for the last three weeks, so in case you didn’t have a chance to study the weekly parashiyot on your own, let me catch you up: there are about five parshiyot talking about the building of the Mishkan and the priest’s clothing. When last I stood before you like this, in fact, I spoke about why the Torah needs to spend so much time talking about building the Mishkan (as opposed to how little time is spent talking about building the whole universe). Then, in the week we had our model seder, the book of Vayikra (or Leviticus) began the detailing of the sacrifices, now that the Tabernacle is finished and the priests are ready to start working. The last week’s parasha talks some more about who should sacrifice what kind of animal for what kind of sin and how the priests (that is, Aaron and his sons) should go about doing the actual sacrificing for the people who have brought their animals as gifts for G-d.
Now, we begin this week’s Torah portion with the first official sacrifice on the altar of the Mishkan. Aaron, with the help of his sons, does exactly as G-d, through Moses, commanded. And a great fire bursts forth from G-d, and consumes the offerings. But then Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, take an incense offering of their own, which G-d has not told them to do, and bring it to the altar. Then the great first bursts forth from G-d and consumes them. Similarly, in this week’s Haftarah portion, a man by the name of Uzzah is struck dead by G-d for touching the Holy Ark, which unlike our ark on our bima was not meant to be touched. To me, it seems Nadav and Avihu just wanted to bring their own gifts to G-d and Uzzah just meant to steady the ark as it was being brought to the new capital of Jerusalem after King David’s crowning.
It’s hard to talk about sacrifices in general. We don’t do them anymore in the way the Torah prescribes. We don’t bring physical gifts for G-d, and we certainly don’t kill animals. But we all still do have to make sacrifices in life. A while back, we were short one snack in the class, but two classmates offered to share with each other. Rather than fight over the last snack, they were both willing to sacrifice half, to make sure everyone got some. When I suggested that everyone in the class contribute one fruit snack to the pair sharing, so that they would have more to share, everyone did. It wasn’t a big sacrifice, but it made a difference to the two that had been sharing. Whenever you are charitable, it is a sacrifice, because you are giving up something of your own, even if it is a small something. In doing so, you are helping out another person. That makes the community grow closer, which can help everyone get closer to G-d, which was the point of the original sacrifices made on the alters of the Tabernacle and Temple.
However, Nadav, Avihu, and Uzzah made the ultimate sacrifice: their lives. This is not something Judaism encourages. Judaism teaches to embrace life and to try to live by the ways of the land, to obey rules that are set for your own health and safety. The ancient rabbis speculated that Nadav and Avihu were drunk, arrogant, did not consult with each other or their teachers before acting, or even, according to the Moroccan Kabbalist rabbi Ohr HaChaim, that perhaps they knew this would be their consequence and were willing to sacrifice themselves for the “divine kiss.” It’s ok to feel excited about getting close to G-d and wanting to go above and beyond to show love sometimes, but please, remember: check yourself before you wreck yourself.
As we go through life, it is important to walk a path of moderation. Get excited and show love and devotion to the people and things you care about, but follow the rules. If you don’t like a rule, investigate why it is the way it is and work to change it; don’t just break it. It is better to ask for permission, because sometimes you may not be able to ask for forgiveness. May we all find ways to get closer to G-d that are safe, healthy, and rule-abiding. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.