This morning,

in the small basement synagogue,

amidst several Chasidic students lost in prayer,

I looked up from my prayer book

to see a man in worker’s clothes climb a ladder

and enter through an open ceiling panel.

And I thought, Oh yes,

he is just another one

like all of us

trying desperately to ascend,

but knowing full well he must come back down

to perform the work of this earth. – Yehoshua November1

A Biblical Thriller

Of the more mysterious deaths recorded in the Bible were the ones that concluded the lives of Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, as they were offering incense in the Holy Temple. “A fire came forth and consumed them and they died before G‑d.”2

While the cause of death is clear from this verse, the reason for their deaths is not. The Divine logic behind this tragedy has plagued commentators throughout the ages.

Here are some of the reasons they offer, largely derived from textual clues hidden within the language and context of the scriptural account of Nadab and Abihu’s passing.

A. They entered the Tabernacle’s Holy of Holies without permission.3

B. They weren’t wearing all of the necessary garments while doing the priestly service.4

C. They had never married.5

D. They had no children.6

E. They were arrogant and many women remained unmarried waiting for them. They said: “Our father's brother is a king, our mother's brother is a prince [i.e., Nachshon, the head of the tribe of Judah], our father is a High Priest, and we are both Deputy High Priests; what woman is worthy of us?”

F. They offered up an “alien fire,”7 i.e., an unbidden incense offering.8

G. They rendered a decision on a matter about which they should have consulted their teacher Moses.9

H. Each of them acted on his own initiative, not taking counsel from one another.10

I. They performed the Temple service while intoxicated.11

J. They entered the Sanctuary without washing their hands and feet.12

K. They already deserved to die at Mount Sinai, when they callously feasted their eyes on the Divine.13

One wonders if this shopping list of crimes was the only legacy left behind by Nadab and Abihu. Is there no redeemable way of viewing the last moments and actions of Aaron’s two sons?

A Contradictory Portrait

Let us eavesdrop on a conversation between Moses and Aaron soon after Aaron suffered his colossal loss.

Moses: My brother, at Sinai, G‑d said to me: “I will sanctify this House, and through a great man would I sanctify it,” and I thought that either through me or through you would this House be sanctified; but now I see that your two sons are greater than you or I.14

Now, that’s a eulogy for the books! More righteous than Moses and Aaron? Could Moses here be guilty of exaggeration in an attempt to comfort his grief-stricken brother? And yet, everything we know about Moses contradicts the image of a man who would indulge in white lies, no matter the circumstance.

It would seem from the Torah’s account of their passing that, with all the reasons given for Nadab and Abihu’s death, we’ve only been made privy to half the story.

A Kiss of Death

A comment by the seventeenth century scholar, Rabbi Chaim Ibn Attar (the Or Hachaim),15 helps fill in the gaps in this story with a holy vision of the brothers’ last deed.

“They approached the supernal light out of their great love of the Holy, and thereby died. Thus they died by "Divine kiss" such as experienced by the perfectly righteous…This is the meaning of the verse,‘They came close to G‑d and died.’”16

The Or Hachaim suggests that Aaron’s elevated sons died of spiritual overdose. In other words, they OD’ed on G.O.D.

The story now seems tripped up, not just tripped out.

Are we dealing with the same characters described earlier? These men have been accused of arrogance, disrespect, disobedience, callousness, and selfishness, and are simultaneously heralded as lofty men obsessed with the Divine to the point of death!

Religion, Not Spirituality

Long before John F. Kennedy declared, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Chassidism, said something similar to a self-absorbed disciple seeking blessing: “Until now you have focused on what you need from G‑d; it’s about time you asked, ‘What is needed of me?’”17

It is this fundamental question that cuts to the heart of the difference between two words and worlds that are often linked together—namely, Spirituality and Religion—ideologies that in reality could not be more different.

What drives spiritual seekers is the pursuit of meaning and transcendence—a search that is increasingly proving to be a basic human need18. However, it’s not the desire to find and live by ultimate truth that fuels most spiritual quests, but the desire to experience the ethereal over the corporeal.

Ironically, spiritual explorations often have little or nothing to do with selflessness. In fact, they sometimes bring their seekers more in touch with their egos.

Spiritual Man wants to feel—to perceive and sense—the intangible, infinity and beyondness. The operative words are “feel” and “sense,” which describe the assertion of selfhood rather than its abnegation. The quest’s departure and arrival points can often be the same: an expanse called Me. Not you, or even we.

Religion, conversely, in its ideal form can be defined as the search for and uncompromising commitment to Truth, regardless of its accompanying challenges and demands.

Central then to religion is the notion of Service. “I am here to serve, not be served,”19 is the mission statement of Religious Man.

It was the world’s first Jew, Abraham, who personified and powerfully articulated this idea in his humble response to G‑d when he was called on to make a superhuman sacrifice (see Genesis 22:1).

“Hineni,” he said simply but unequivocally. “Here I am.”

And here is where Nadab and Abihu fell short.

These elevated souls were genuinely in love with their Creator. Moses did not overstate their unique spiritual sensitivity in his comforting words to their father. After all, how many people throughout history have been infatuated with G‑d to the point of death from their lovesickness for Him?

And yet Aaron’s sons failed to ask the most essential religious question of all — not “What can G‑d do for me?” but “What can I do for G‑d?”

G‑d created them as corporeal beings in order that they elevate their material surroundings and existence — in body, not just in spirit. But they desired otherwise: to escape and fade into the otherworldly. They wanted up, and out, and therefore willingly ventured beyond the point of no return.

As the Or Hachaim puts it:

“Although they sensed their own demise, this did not prevent them from drawing near to G‑d in attachment, delight, delectability, fellowship, love, kisses and sweetness, to the point that their souls left them.”

In sum: The religionist and the spiritualist might both engage in the same rite or ritual, pray and meditate on the same psalm, sing, dance, or sway to the same celestial tune, and yet one is serving while the other is being served; the former loses himself in the Divine, while the latter finds himself there.

A Question and Answer to Ponder:

Q: With the above in mind can you think of a connection that ties all of Nadab and Abihu’s transgressions together and how they might somehow stem from one overarching offense?

A:20 In the worldview of Nadab and Abihu, it’s all about the Yom Kippur moments of our lives, when we stroll into the Holy of Holies and feel spiritually intoxicated and high21. From that perspective, an ideal spiritual existence excludes family life and commitment, as well as the need to wear specific spiritual garments (a mystical reference to thoughts, words, and actions, considered garments of the soul), and the requirement to wash our hands and feet in service— metaphors for engaging in “lowly” Deed. At the center of this worldview is the self, which allows for basic arrogance and the lack of camaraderie.

What’s in It for Me?

A man who was heavily immersed in the drug culture once visited the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Excitedly, he described one of his “trips” as having been “a profoundly moving experience.”

“You did well to call it that,” the Rebbe replied after patiently hearing him out. “What you described to me was exactly that: just an experience...22

Judaism is not a religion of escapism or sensationalism but of deed in the here and now. We weren’t placed on this earth to experience, but to do, and while feeling is nice, action is right.

For this reason, it is the melancholic account of Nadab and Abihu’s passing that introduces the laws of Yom Kippur.

On Yom Kippur we feel pure and holy, like angels. But on an ordinary weekday, through sanctifying the mundane existence we inhabit, we reach higher than angels, touching G‑d Himself.

For by His own design that’s where He can be found: hidden beneath the thick covers of the morning after.

(Inspired by Likutei Sichot vol. 3, p. 987, vol. 7 p. 125.)