"Against your will you live; against your will you die"

Ethics of the Fathers 4:22


"The soul of man is a lamp of G‑d."

The flame knows no rest, for it lives in perpetual conflict between two opposite tendencies. On the one hand, it cleaves to its wick, drinking thirstily of the oil that fuels its existence. At the same time, it surges upward, seeking to tear free of its material tether. It knows that such disengagement would spell the end of its existence as a manifest, illuminating flame; nevertheless, such is its nature.

This is the paradox of the flame's life: its attachment to wick and fuel sustains both its continued existence and its incessant striving for oblivion.

Man, too, is torn between these two contrasting drives. On the one hand, he tends towards self, towards life and existence. At the same time, he yearns for transcendence, to tear free from the confining involvements of physical life, to reach beyond his material self.

"Against your will you live; against your will you die" - the tension created by these conflicting drives is the essence of the human experience. The desire to escape the trappings of physical life is what separates the human from the merely animal; but the escapist nature of man is counterbalanced by the compulsion to be, a compulsion that binds him to the material reality. Back and forth, back and forth runs the cycle of life, from being to transcendence and back again.


And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer ... and offered a strange fire before G‑d, which He had not commanded.

And a fire went out from G‑d and consumed them, and they died before G‑d.

And Moses said to Aaron: "This is what G‑d spoke, saying: `I shall be sanctified by those who are close to Me....'" (Leviticus 10:1-3)

short/ cir/cuit: an abnormal, usually unintentional, condition of relatively low resistance between two points of different potential in a circuit, usually resulting in a flow of excess current.

(The Random House Dictionary of the English Language)

Our sages explain that Nadav and Avihu's act of "offering a strange fire before G‑d" was not a "sin" per se. On the contrary, the event prompted Moses to say to Aaron, "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 are greater then both of us."

Rather, as Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar writes in his Ohr Hachaim commentary on Torah, theirs was "a death by Divine `kiss' like that experienced by the perfectly righteous - it is only 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 the Divine] in attachment, delight, delectability, fellowship, love, kiss and sweetness, to the point that their souls ceased from them."

In other words, the Divine fire that consumed the souls of Nadav and Avihu was the fire that is intrinsic to every soul: the soul's burning desire to tear free of the physical trappings that distance it from its Divine source. Nadav and Avihu "came close to G‑d" by indulging and fuelling this desire to the point that they broke free of the "cycle" of life - to the point that their souls literally severed its connection with their bodies and were utterly consumed in ecstatic reunion with G‑d.

Making It Real: From Cycle to Spiral

But this was a ``strange fire,'' a fire that ``G‑d had not commanded.'' Man was not created to consume his material being in a fire of spiritual ecstasy. Although He imbued our souls with the drive for self-transcendence, G‑d wants us to anchor our fervor to reality. He wants us to "settle" this yearning within our physical self, to absorb it and make it part of our everyday life and experience.

Following the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, G‑d specifically commanded that their example not be repeated. As the Torah relates: "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 come not at all times into the Holy... So that he die not..."

However, this Divine command did not come to limit the degree of self-transcendence and closeness to G‑d that we may attain. On the contrary: the command itself empowered us to accommodate, as a physically alive human beings, the very fire that consumed the souls of Nadav and Avihu. So the "strange fire" they offered was also "strange" in a positive sense: an unprecedented act that opened a new vista in man's service of G‑d.

This is the significance of a remark attributed to the founder of the Chassidic movement, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov: "It is only out of a great kindness on the part of the Almighty that one remains alive after prayer."

Prayer is the endeavor to transcend the enmeshments of material life and come close to one's essence and source in G‑d. When a person truly achieves this closeness (that is, when he truly prays), he can experience an attachment to G‑d of the magnitude that "released" the souls of Nadav and Avihu. But G‑d has enabled us (in the very act of commanding us to do so) to incorporate such sublime experiences into our daily, humanly defined lives.

So life's constant to-and-fro movement is more than a cycle that runs from existence to oblivion and back It is, rather, an upward spiral. Against your will you live - man escapes his finite self, but is driven back to make his transcendent achievements an integral part of his individual being. Against your will you die - man's "escapist" nature now reasserts itself, compelling him to reach beyond the horizon of his new, expanded self as well. Against your will you live - again, man's tendency for being draws him back to reality.

Back and forth, upward and on, the flame of man dances, his two most basic drives conspiring to propel him to bridge ever-wider gulfs between transcendence and immanence, between the ideal and the real.