A strange episode is used to explain why, according
to Jewish tradition, weddings are not scheduled during this
time of the year, the Omer period between Passover and Shavuot:
In Talmudic times 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died during
this period “for not showing respect to one another”
(Talmud Yevamot 62b). We therefore honor this “mourning
period” by avoiding celebrations that can be scheduled
at other times (Tur and Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 493:1).
How is it possible that such great students of such a great
master should stoop to not respecting each other?! Especially
considering that their teacher, Rabbi Akiva taught that
“love your fellow like yourself” is a “great
fundamental in Torah”!
Their fate is equally, if not even more disturbing: Disrespect
is awful. But why did it cause them to all die? Isn’t
that a bit harsh of a punishment for this crime?
And above all, why are we told about this sad story, and
asked to commemorate it by refraining from marriage and
other celebrations? The past is the past; why the need to
dwell on it?
The opening of this week’s Torah portion concludes a similarly
mysterious event that took place three chapters back:
After the Sanctuary was finished, the Torah tells us that
the two elder sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, “offered
a strange fire before G-d, which He had not commanded.”
The result: “A fire went out from G-d and consumed
them, and they died before G-d.”
Now, in this week’s portion, following the deaths of Nadav
and Avihu, G-d specifically commanded that their example
should not be repeated: “And G-d spoke to Moses, after the
death of Aaron’s two sons, who came close to G-d and died...
Speak to Aaron your brother, that he [be careful to] not
come at all times into the Holy... so that he not die...
[but] with this shall Aaron come into the holy place” (Leviticus
16:1-2), and the Torah continues with the conditions how
to enter the Holy of Holies. Rashi explains that this command
comes immediately after the statement of the death of Aaron’s
sons, to warn him that his service of G-d should not be
like that of his sons.
What lies behind Nadav and Avihu’s actions? Did they
behave properly or not? On one hand, they were clearly great
men who “came close to G-d;” on the other hand,
“they died” because they “offered a strange
fire before G-d, which He had not commanded.” And
G-d is warning Aaron not to behave like them.
And what is the meaning of the “strange fire”
that they offered?
Above all, if Aaron’s sons behaved wrongly why is it important
to document their sad story, which presents them in a negative
The key to the story lies in the word “fire.”
Fire is passion. All passion comes from the fire of the
soul, “the soul of man is the fire of G-d.”
Like a flame, a soul always reaches upward, licking the
air in its search for transcendence, only to be restrained
by the wick grounding the flame to the earth. The soul’s
fire wants to defy the confines of life; the free spirit
wants to soar ever higher, always reaching for the heavens.
Like fire, the spirit ablaze cannot tolerate the mediocrity
and monotony of the inanimate “wick” of materialism.
Its passion knows no limits as it craves for the beyond.
But just like it can be the source of our greatest strength,
the fire of the soul, like any fire, can also be the cause
of great destruction.
Therein lays the story of Nadav and Avihu, two extraordinary
When the holy Sanctuary was finished Aaron’s sons,
deeply spiritual individuals, were drawn to enter the holiest
sanctum on earth. They wanted to bask in the ecstasy of
the Temple’s pure spirit.
Indeed, the behavior of Aaron’s two sons was not
a sin; it was an act of great sanctification, as Moses tells
Aaron immediately following the tragedy: “This is
what G-d spoke, saying: 'I shall be sanctified by those
who are close to Me.'” The sages explain: Moses said,
“Aaron, my brother, I knew that the Sanctuary would
be sanctified by those who were beloved and close to G-d.
When G-d said 'I shall be sanctified by those close to Me,'
I thought it referred to me or you; now I see that they
– Nadav and Avihu – are greater then both of
Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar (the Ohr Hachaim) explains, that
their death was “by Divine 'kiss' like that experienced
by the perfectly righteous. Only [the problem was that]
the righteous die when the Divine 'kiss' approaches them,
while they died by their approaching it.... Although they
sensed their own demise, this did not prevent them from
drawing near [to G-d] in attachment, delight, delectability,
fellowship, love, kiss and sweetness, to the point that
their souls ceased from them.”
Nadav and Avihu’s death was a result of their profound
yearning for a Divine experience. Their error was that they
initiated it at their own discretion, and “selfishly” allowed
the ecstasy to consume them. Their sin was not they got
close to the Divine, but that they died doing so. In a sense,
they wanted it too much, so much so that they rushed into
the fire and got burned in the process. Their bodies could
no longer contain their souls.
Thus the Torah says “when they came close to G-d and (with
such passion that) they died.” Why does the Torah add “and
they died” when it has already said, “after the death of
the two sons of Aaron?” Although it is healthy to divest
yourself of material concerns, at the moment when you stand
poised at the ultimate ecstasy of the soul, you must turn
again to the work that the soul must do to transform the
physical existence. Nadav and Avihu achieved the ecstasy
but not the return. This was their sin and the reason for
their death. They “came close to G-d and they died.” They
allowed their spiritual passion override their task to transform
the world. They escaped beyond the world and beyond life
If their motivation was pure, driven by the fiery passion
of the soul, why then was it called a “strange fire?”
Because even if their intention was a good one, it ultimately
was driven by their personal desire, albeit a spiritual
desire, but still defined by their subjective drives. It
may have begun for Divine reasons, but they allowed it to
become their own personal interest, mounting to a point
of intensity that it destroyed them, thus rendering the
“fire” into a “strange fire,” one
which “He had not commanded.” They entered on
their own terms, at their own pace, at their own choosing
– not on G-d’s terms.
And this was the reason that they actually ended up dying
in the process. Because the same G-d that imbued us with
passionate souls also commanded us to use the passion not
to expire in ecstasy and escape the universe, no matter
how appealing that choice may be, but to channel the passion
downward and transform the material world in which we live
into a Divine home. This is the purpose of the Temple: “build
me a sanctuary (out of physical materials) and I will rest
Thus, the ultimate test of Aaron’s sons’ intentions
was their inability to integrate the experience: Had they
patiently and humbly entered on Divine terms, they would
have been able to integrate the experience into their lives
and return to sanctify their world. Integration would have
confirmed that they were doing it not for themselves but
for the cause, for G-d. The fact that they allowed themselves
to be consumed with their own spiritual fire, demonstrated
that it was their “own thing,” not G-d’s,
a strange fire not commanded.
Now, in this week’s Torah portion, “after the death of
Aaron’s sons,” Aaron is warned not to enter the Holy of
Holies like his sons did. Rather, “with this shall Aaron
enter the holy place” – in awe, obedience and self-abnegation.
And in this way he would be able to “make atonement for
himself and for his house” on the holiest day of the year,
Yom Kippur, and to say a prayer for the sustenance of Israel
– acts of concern for the world.
In other words, the determining factor whether the soul’s
fire will be a constructive or destructive force is dependent
on the person’s motivation, how he begins his spiritual
journey: If it’s a self indulgent experience, driven
primarily by personal desire and interest, then you will
not wish to turn back from your private ecstasy to the needs
of the world, and the fire will inevitably consume you.
If, however, it is driven by the selfless dedication and
all-out surrender to the Divine, then within this ecstasy,
the desire ultimately to return and sanctify the world will
always be implicit, and the fire will lift you and your
world to exalted heights.
In the famous Talmudic story of the “four that entered
the garden” (a mystical experience) only Rabbi Akiva
began the journey with the proper attitude: He “entered
in peace and (therefore) came out in peace.” Because
he entered with humility, in obedience to the Divine will
and seeking to unite the higher and lower worlds, that is
why he came out in peace. His intention of returning was
implicit at the outset of his path to religious ecstasy.
While the other three – Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma and Acher
– all entered for other reasons, which determined
how they emerged. Ben Azzai entered seeking ecstasy, not
return; therefore he “looked and died.” Ben
Zoma “looked and was stricken” (with madness).
Acher “mutilated the shoots” (i.e., became an
In a similar way the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva “burned”
each other up with their great passion. Their disrespect
for one another was not despite but because of their
greatness: Each student was so consumed with his own brilliant
opinion that he could not tolerate his colleague’s
position. People who are not that powerful and intense in
their positions can find it easier to compromise and co-exist
with others. But exceptional students who are extremely
passionate about their interpretations and opinions in Torah
– they require far more humility, care and sensitivity
to ensure that one does not “destroy” the other
with his intensity. And the “holier” the “fire,”
the more one feels that he is representing Torah and G-d
– the greater the danger. As the Kotzker Rebbe sardonically
interprets the Mishne: “Every argument that is for
the sake of heaven will last forever:” When both parties
know that their disagreement is driven by self-interest
or the likes, then there is hope that they will come to
some agreement. But when each party thinks that he is representing
heaven, dressing up their differences of opinion in “holy
garments,” then there is no hope for reconciliation,
with each side feeling that it cannot compromise “G-d”…
Had these students been of lesser stature, their disrespect
for each other would not have harmed them as much. But precisely
because their minds were on fire and their hearts were ablaze
did they burn each other up.
We are told the story of Aaron’s sons – and
the students of Rabbi Akiva – in order to teach us
an invaluable lesson about our own life experiences, and
the dangers of passion, zealousness and self-righteousness:
Each of us contains a powerful soul, with fire in its belly.
Each of us will, at one point or another, encounter spiritual
opportunities; passionate moments which will entice and
light up our fires, craving transcendence – the need
to get beyond the daily grind. Transcendence can take on
many shapes: Spirituality, music, romance, travel, or sexuality,
to name a few.
How you act in these times – when the flames of your soul
are ablaze – will define the destiny of your life.
This explains why this week’s portion is known by
the name “after” or “after the death.”
Why name a Torah portion with an odd title – “after
the death?” Why emphasize their tragic death?
The Torah is telling us that the “death” of
Aaron’s two sons – both the death itself, and
“after the death” – teaches us a vital
lesson, actually a twofold lesson:
1) The search and need for transcendence, the craving and
yearning for a spiritual high is healthy and a necessary
ingredient in the human journey. All mans greatest achievements,
his noblest acts, his deepest loves – draw from the
soul’s passionate fire.
2) Yet, as with all powerful things, great care must be
taken that the spiritual experience doesn’t “burn
you up,” but is integrated in your life.
The fire of our souls, like any fire, can be the source
of sustenance (healthy fire), or… an inferno (“strange
fire”). The challenge is great. The choice is ours.
Therein lies the twofold positive lesson from the children
of Aaron, both from their death and “after the death:”
Their death teaches us how not to enter the Holy of Holies
uninvited, not to enter at our initiative, at any time we
so choose, not to enter as a result of our personal desire;
“after the death” teaches us how to enter –
“with this shall Aaron enter the holy place”
– with utmost humility, with sensitivity and above
all, total immersing and sublimating yourself into the experience.
The same is true when we have a strong opinion about a
given manner. The smarter you are, the more powerful your
resolve, the more convinced you are in the righteousness
of your position, the greater the care that needs to be
taken to not hurt others in the process.
This may be the greatest secret to a healthy relationship
or marriage: Your ability to transcend your own powerful
position and certainty.
24,000 students self-destructed in this period of time
due to their inability to co-exist. Their fervent passion
and their gifts were their undoing. We redeem their deaths
during these 49 days by looking into our passionate hearts,
and learning the art of restraint: That ultimate greatness
is measured not by how right you are and by how great is
your light, but by how you allowed that greatness to be
contained and integrated into other people’s lives.