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July 29, 2015 / 13 Av, 5775
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From Structure To Continuity To Spontaneity


Parshat Shemini tells the tragic story of how the great inauguration of the Tabernacle, a day about which the Sages said that God rejoiced as much as he had at the creation of the universe, was overshadowed by the death of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu:

Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which [God] had not instructed them [to offer]. Fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord (Leviticus 10:1-2).

Many explanations were given by the Sages and later commentators as to what Nadav and Avihu’s sin actually was. But the simplest answer, given by the Torah itself here and elsewhere (Numbers 3:4, 26:61), is that they acted on their own initiative. They did what they had not been commanded. They acted spontaneously, perhaps out of sheer enthusiasm in the mood of the moment, offering “unauthorized fire.” Evidently it is dangerous to act spontaneously in matters of the spirit.

But is it? Moses acted spontaneously in far more fraught circumstances when he shattered the tablets of stone on seeing the Israelites cavorting around the Golden Calf. The tablets – hewn and engraved by God himself – were perhaps the holiest objects there have ever been. Yet Moses was not punished for his act. The Sages said that though he acted of his own accord without first consulting God, God assented to his act. Rashi refers to this moment in his very last comment on the Torah, whose last verse (Deuteronomy 34:12) speaks about “all the strong hand, and all the great awe, which Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel”:

This refers to when Moses took the liberty of shattering the tablets before their eyes, as it is said: “I shattered them before your eyes.” The Holy One, Blessed be He consented to his opinion, for it is said, “which you shattered … More power to you for shattering them!”

Why then was spontaneity wrong for Nadav and Avihu, yet right for Moshe Rabbeinu? The answer is that Nadav and Avihu were kohanim, priests. Moses was a navi, a prophet. These are two different forms of religious leadership. They involve different tasks and different sensibilities, indeed different approaches to time itself.

The kohen serves God in a way that never changes over time (except, of course, when the Temple was destroyed and its service, presided over by the kohanim, came to an end). The prophet serves God in a way that is constantly changing over time. When people are at ease the prophet warns of forthcoming catastrophe. When they suffer catastrophe and are in the depths of despair, the prophet brings consolation and hope.

The words said by the kohen are always the same. The priestly blessing uses the same words today as it did in the days of Moses and Aaron. But the words used by a prophet are never the same. “No two prophets use the same style” (Sanhedrin 89a). So for a prophet, spontaneity is of the essence. But for the kohen engaged in Divine service, it is completely out of place.

Why the difference? After all, the priest and the prophet were serving the same God. The Torah uses a kind of device we have only recently reinvented in a somewhat different form. Stereophonic sound – sound coming from two different speakers – was developed in the 1930s to give the impression of audible perspective. In the 1950s 3D film was developed to do for sight what stereo had done for sound. From the work of Pierre Broca in the 1860s to today, using MRI and PET scans, neuroscientists have striven to understand how our bicameral brain allows us to respond more intelligently to our environment than would otherwise have been possible. Twin perspectives are needed fully to experience reality.

The twin perspectives of the priest and prophet correspond to the twin perspectives on creation represented, respectively, by Genesis 1:1-2:3 (spoken in the priestly voice, with an emphasis on order, structure, divisions and boundaries), and Genesis 2:4-3:24 (spoken in the prophetic voice, with an emphasis on the nuances and dynamics of interpersonal relationships).

Now let us consider one other area in which there was an ongoing argument between structure and spontaneity, namely tefillah (specifically the Amidah). We know that after the destruction of the Temple, Rabban Gamliel and his court at Yavneh established a standard text for the weekday Amidah, comprising 18 (later 19) blessings in a precise order (Mishnah Berachot 4:3).

Not everyone, however, agreed. Rabbi Joshua held that individuals could say an abridged form of the Amidah. According to some interpretations, Rabbi Eliezer was opposed to a fixed text altogether and held that one should, each day, say something new (Yerushalmi Berachot 4).

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”


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