A boy witnesses the death of Nadav and Avihu
The boy looks up at me. He has always struck me with his incredibly intense eyes. But there is fear there now, a deep and troubling fear.
“Grandma?” he asks.
“Yes,” I answer, my voice shaking.
“Is G-d going to kill me too?”
I don’t know the answer to his question. How could I? How can I understand what has happened?
I stroke the boy’s hair gently.
“No,” I say, calmly, “G-d won’t kill you?”
I’ve said it, but I’m not sure I believe it. He looks at me, doubtfully. It is time to sleep, but he will be consumed by nightmares. How could he not? I will be consumed by nightmares. How could we possibly avoid it?
One minute, Nadav and Avihu had been approaching the Mishkan our people had built. And, then, the next minute, they had been consumed by a heavenly fire. It had happened only hours ago.
The entire community is still in shock and I know I’m not the only woman trying to calm a frightened child.
And what had Moshe, our great leader, done? He’d tried to make Aaron act as if nothing had happened. But, something had happened.
When Aaron made it clear that was in no state to celebrate, Moshe had accepted that. But then he’d gone on one of his law-giving binges. He’d gone on and on about what kinds of animals and birds and fish we can or can’t eat.
I’m sure the man is holy, but he has no sense for people.
The little boy is still looking at me. He’d only five, but he’s seen so much already. These last few years have been both miraculous and frightening.
I need to give him something to hold on to. But I don’t know what. And then I have an idea.
“Can you see the string?” I ask.
“What string?” the boy replies.
“The string,” I say, “That connects us.”
He looks at me, very seriously, and says, “There is no string, grandma.”
“Of course there is,” I say, “I am connected to you. And you are connected to me. It’s a string that connects us. You can’t see it, but it is even more real than my hand or your nose.”
His eyes widen. I keep going. “We have strings that go all over the place. Some are thick and strong, like our string. But others are thin and weak.”
He’s listening, carefully.
“But one string is the most important, and hardest to see, of all. Do you know which string that is?”
He shakes his head, no.
“The string from us to Hashem,” I say. “That string is called holiness. And it crosses from our world – where there are physical things and where things change – to His world – where everything is spiritual and where nothing changes.”
“Moshe said Nadav and Avihu strengthened that string,” the boy whispered, “He said their death sanctified G-d. How can that be?”
I’m stunned by the question. The boy listens to everything.
“I don’t know,” I say, “Let’s try to work it out. Let’s start at the beginning. How do you make that string?”
“I don’t know,” the boy says.
“Well,” I say, “Then let’s start at the beginning. The way we build our strings, any of them, is by investing in them. We don’t just have an emotion, because emotion alone makes a very weak string. Instead, we build and create and then we use what we’ve created to make the spiritual string. Do you understand?”
He looks at me and then says, “Like when dad made the top of our tent by tanning animals skins?”
“Exactly!” I say, “He worked and worked and then used what he worked on for the benefit of his family. And he made the string between himself and all you children stronger.”
The boy smiles widely.
“Do you know who did this first?”
“No,” says the boy.
“Hashem,” I say, “When he created for six days and then rested on the seventh. He invested in our world and then rested in it. And he created holiness as a result…”
“But He killed Nadav and Avihu.”
“He did,” I say, “So let’s keep exploring. How do we, people, create?”
“With our hands,” the little boy answers.
“That’s right,” I say. I don’t know what to say next. I seem t have reached a dead end. And then an idea strikes me.
“Do you remember when Moshe told us about which animals we can eat? Can you remember any of the rules for animals?”
My grandson thinks for a moment and then says, “Animals have to have split hooves and chew their cud.”
“Very good!” I say, with a smile. “Now, do you know why?”
“No,” he answers, a bit disappointed.
“That’s okay,” I say, “Let’s think about our hands. If an animal has no fingers, can it create like us?”
“No,” he says, “It can’t.”
“Right,” I say, “And if it has lots of fingers, like we do?”
“Then it can create,” he answers. “Like us.”
“Right again,” I say, with a smile. “Well, if it has lots of fingers, we shouldn’t eat it. We’d be destroying an animal that can create like us and that would be a waste. We don’t connect to G-d by destroying. He is the Creator and we want to imitate Him. But animals with split hooves just have the essence of creation. They have the symbolism of creation – but aren’t actually creative. So, we can eat them and make them a part of us.”
“Is this what the Kohanim split their fingers, like cows?”
I think for a moment before answering. “Yes, I think so. Kohanim aren’t supposed to be creative like regular people. They are hampered, just like the cows. The Kohen’s job is to actually weave the string using the investments of the people.”
After a pause, the boy asks, “So why do the animals need to choose their cud?” the boy asks.
“Ah,” I say, the pieces clicking together, “Because when they chew their cud, they rest like we should on the Sabbath – living on what we’ve already acquired and resting with G-d. This trait gives them the ability to contribute to the string of holiness.”
The boy thinks for a while and then his eyes open wide. “Nadav and Avihu did this wrong?” he says.
“What do you mean?” I ask. I hadn’t realized there was a connection.
“They only brought incense,” the boy says, “My father taught me that incense represents emotion because smells make us feel things. But they didn’t bring flour, which takes a lot of work to make. And they didn’t bring oil, which takes a lot of purification to make. They didn’t make the string the right way.”
“You’re right!” I say, surprised. I act delighted, but the image of those burning brothers is still burned into my mind.
“Can the birds help us understand more?” the boy asks.
I think for a moment, and then I realize the answer to his question.
“Well,” I say, “We live in a world where our strings can connect to all sorts of things, even things that aren’t real.”
“What do you mean?” he asks.
“We could connect our strings to gods that don’t exist,” I say, “But when we do so, we think we’re connecting to something real because so many strings go there. But only the connections would be real, not the thing they’re connecting to. We can even connect to ourselves, in fact we often do exactly that. And when we do that, we often don’t know we aren’t really connecting to Hashem.”
“What does this have to do with the birds?” he asks.
“Ah!” I say, “Remember when Moshe told us what birds we can and can’t eat?”
“Yes…” says the boy, his voice trailing off.
“Did he give us a rule?”
“Did he say something like, ‘you can eat all the red ones?’”
“No,” says the boy, “He just told us which birds we can eat and which ones we can’t.”
“Right,” I say, “That’s because birds are so close to Hashem’s world. Hashem lives in a world without death and there’s nothing dead in the sky. In order to draw close to Hashem, we aren’t allowed to figure out what is holy or not. It is too tempting to pick whatever we already believe in. And if we did that, the strings would actually connect right back to us. So, when we draw close to Hashem, He decides what’s holy. The closer you get to G-d, the more He decides what’s right.”
I see the boy’s thinking, and then he says, quietly, “Nadav and Avihu designed their own offering.”
“You’re right,” I say, surprised again. “And we’re so close to G-d, we’re not allowed to do that.”
I am beginning to suspect that this is why Moshe had gone into all those strange laws. He might have been telling us what Nadav and Avihu had done wrong?
“What about the bugs?” the boy asks.
The bugs? I wonder. Could Moshe have intended a message even with the bugs? He always seemed to like symbolic riddles. I don’t know where to start, so I ask the boy.
“Did you notice anything strange about the bugs?” I can’t think of anything.
“Sure,” says the boy, “He said they go on four legs. But bugs have six legs.”
Trust a little boy to know that.
“Four legs….” I trail off, thinking. And then an idea comes to me, “My beautiful boy, what else does arba, or four, mean?”
“It means ‘multiply’,” says the boy.
“Right again,” I say. “Maybe Moshe was saying that bugs go by multiplying. They don’t act as individuals. They aren’t driven to connect, by themselves. Instead, they act by teeming and producing generations of bugs. We can’t bring that essence into ourselves. Some people do that, just multiplying like bugs but not acting with the individual will we need.”
The boy looks thoughtful. “But what about the ones with jointed legs that jump? How come we can eat them?”
“Ah,” I say, “When you want to go somewhere, how do you get there?”
“I run,” says the boy.
“Yes, you run,” I say, “With your legs. You can go places you choose to go because of your legs. You don’t go places by multiplying, you do it by choosing and then using your legs to get there. Well, the bugs we can eat have legs like ours and they jump up, using those legs to go places and jump towards the heavens. In a way, those legs symbolize what our will should be, so they are closer to what we need to be. They have an essence that can be a part of a holy people.”
The boy whispers, “Nadav and Avihu were drunk.”
“Yes, I know,” I whisper back, filled with sadness. I’m not sure why he brought it up.
“I know how they got when they were drunk. It was like they weren’t themselves. The wine took over.”
“I know,” I say.
“They were like the bugs with no legs,” he says, “They didn’t have their own will.”
I just stare at him for a minute, stunned.
Were all of Moshe’s laws teaching us to avoid the mistakes of Nadav and Avihu?
“Let’s try the fish,” I say, suddenly curious.
“Okay,” says the boy.
“What’s special about water?” I ask.
“Everybody always says it is spiritual,” says the boy, “Which is why shamayim or ‘heaven’ literally means place of waters. And why Miriam’s holiness gave us the well that travels with us.”
“Very good!” I say, getting the beginning of an idea. “We are surrounded by spirituality, like a fish is surrounded by water. And not just Hashem’s. Just like I said before, we are all trying to connect and so we create a sea of strings.”
“Okay,” says the boy, closing his eyes and trying to imagine what that is like.
“We could just open ourselves up to all of them. We could take in all the spiritual connections. But that isn’t our job. We’re supposed to connect to Hashem. And if we connect to everything, we can’t connect as strongly to Him. He is jealous. He doesn’t want to share us with things that do not even exist.”
“Okay…” says the boy.
“Well,” I say, “The fish need to have scales, to separate themselves from the waters. And we need to have spiritual scales, to separate ourselves from other spiritual forces. And fish need to have fins, so they steer themselves through the waters. Likewise, we need to steer through the spiritual waters – so we can find and connect to Hashem. The string from us to Him is only strong if we save it for Him and if we actually try to make it so.”
“Did Nadav and Avihu get this wrong?” he asks.
This time, I have the answer. “They were priests; they were Kohanim. They are supposed to be weavers of our string, but they aren’t supposed to be the people who supply the investment the string needs to be strong. But they brought incense. They brought emotion. It is what normal people bring. They didn’t make themselves distinct. They lacked scales. And they brought only incense. It was emotion driving them, not the stronger threads of investment. They lacked fins.”
“So, they did that wrong too,” the boy concludes.
“They did,” I agree.
The boy still looks a little sad, and scared. I try to reassure him.
“G-d won’t kill you,” I say, “G-d won’t kill you because you always act with will, like the bugs we can eat. And you make yourself distinct and directed, like the fish we can eat. And you let G-d define what is Holy as you draw close to Him, like the birds we can eat. And you embrace the cycle of holiness, like the animals we can eat.”
I pause for a moment, letting it all sink in. Moshe had been giving a message to all of us. He had been giving us a physical mnemonic so we could avoid the fate of Nadav and Avihu. And he’d done it without ever criticizing the brothers themselves. He may not be good with people, but I can still appreciate what he’s done.
“But how did killing Nadav and Avihu sanctify G-d?” the boy asks.
I draw in a long breath, “Their death showed us how to strengthen the string the right way. It helped all of us make a proper connection with G-d.”
The boy just sits there, tears suddenly appearing in his eyes. I give him a long hug and whisper into his ear, “So long as you remember to connect only to Him, and so long as you do it the way He wants, G-d will grant you peace.”
He’s crying more now. I hold him. He’s exhausted and I can feel the grief pouring out of his body.
After a long while, I feel him getting tired. I lay him down and he looks up with far more peaceful eyes. “Thank you, grandma Elisheva,” he says, with a soft smile.
“Sleep well,” I say, gently. “Sleep well, my little Pinchas.”
And with that, his eyes close and he immediately begins to drift off.
Once he is asleep, I stand up and walk slowly from the tent.
He can sleep, but I cannot.
I am Elisheva, the wife of Aaron. And I have lost two of my sons this day.
I have watched the burnt bodies of my Nadav and Avihu being carried away. Even the quiet, beautiful, power of Pinchas’ young face cannot wipe away my horror.
As I exit the tent, the cold night air strikes my face. And then I realize that while I might be able to explain why it happened, I will never be able to understand it.
Credit to Shai Cohen for the concept of fish being distinct and directed within the waters.