When does ambition stop being a healthy motivator and become an exercise in abuse of privilege and power? The lessons of this week’s Torah portion have much to teach us on this subject.The portion, Shemini, opens with Moses’ instructions to his sons on the manner of bringing offerings to the sanctuary. Aaron performs the ritual perfectly. His two other sons take it upon themselves, without consultation, to bring offerings of their own. These “alien fires” were not commanded, and God punishes Nadab and Abihu with death.
The sages have struggled with this story for millenia. What did Nadab and Abihu do that was so wrong as to merit this deadly consequence? The early Rabbis argued that it wasn’t that they offered the wrong kind of incense or fire, but rather the evil intent behind the offerings. They contended that the sons were trying to wrest power from Moses and Aaron with this self-aggrandizing act. It was not ambition, but rather arrogance that led them to take matters into their own hands. Here were children of privilege, sons of a leader and prophet, born into the priestly class. This was not enough for them, they felt themselves above the law.
Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch (important 19th century German scholar) criticizes Nadab and Abihu saying, “ …Judaism is a tradition of laws and commandments given to bond the community together as a sacred people. When individuals act out of their own zeal to change or break the law, they end up disrupting community expectations and unity.”
When individuals, or groups of people, either by arrogance or feelings of entitlement place themselves above everyone else, they threaten the very fabric of society. We, unfortunately, see evidence of this today whether in the actions of our current leaders, or in the arrogance and entitlement of wealthy parents who bribe and cheat their children into good schools. Judaism teaches us to put the needs of society above our own. No one is above the law. There is an old Yiddish proverb that says “Look for cake, and you lose your bread.”
–Cantor Fran Burgess