To issue a ruling in the presence of one’s rabbi or a wise elder is certainly unbecoming, but is it deserving of the death penalty?
This week’s Torah portion is “Shemini” (Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47), and in it we read about the death of Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, who were killed by God during the dedication ceremony for the Tabernacle. We are told that their sin was that “they offered a foreign fire,” although there are a number of interpretations to this event.
According to one opinion in the Talmud, Nadav and Avihu were killed for issuing a legal ruling in the presence of Moses. Moses, of course, was the supreme authority on Jewish law, and issuing a ruling in his presence would be improper, to say the least. Indeed, this is true even today. A rabbi is forbidden to issue a ruling in Jewish law in the presence of a rabbi who is greater, older, or more learned than he. There is a story in the Talmud about a rabbi who did so, and it was successfully predicted that he would die for it, as it mirrored the sin of Nadav and Avihu.
According to this approach, the “foreign fire” is explained as follows: Although they were well-meaning, Nadav and Avihu were not permitted to offer a sacrifice in the Tabernacle. However, they “issued a ruling for themselves” (without consulting Moses, as they should have) that they were permitted to do so. Again, although well meaning, you cannot just charge into Buckingham Palace because you want to give the Queen a beautiful bouquet of roses.
However, the question can be asked. Issuing a ruling in front of one’s rabbi is certainly unbecoming…but the death penalty?
A Greater Sin than Meets the Eye
It is explained that the act of issuing a ruling in the presence of one’s rabbi is a much greater sin than meets the eye. The Talmud says that the prophet Isaiah cursed the Jewish people just prior to the destruction of Jerusalem, which was a result of their many sins. He gave them 18 curses, in fact, among which there would remain not a single Jew knowledgeable in Jewish texts, such as the Torah and Talmud. As a result, there would be no leaders; the youth would rebel against the elders and the simple people against the wise individuals.
This latter curse was considered to be the ultimate insult. When basic etiquette, manners and dignity are lost, all is lost. Jewish literature emphasizes repeatedly the honor and respect that we must show to our elders and to wise people. The Midrash (rabbinic literature) says that just as a bird cannot fly without its wings, so, too, the Jews cannot “fly” without their elders. This is why the curse of disrespect was the worst that could befall the Jews.
Now we can better understand why issuing a ruling in the presence of one’s rabbi is so severe. Without deferring to the elders and the more learned, one is not only sinning against the honored individuals, but also against the Jewish people. This is because Jewish direction has always been decided by our elders. We are a nation of tradition, a nation of humility. As the Torah commands, “Ask your father and he will tell you, ask your elders and they will tell you” [Deut 32:7]. Without our elders, and without our tradition, which is received from the “previous” generation, we would cease to exist. Plain and simple. This is why Nadav and Avihu’s sin was so severe.
We can implement this idea into our own lives by never being shy to ask those who are more wise for advice when needed.
By: Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
For more insights by Rabbi Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below.
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