But I have been persuaded by Professor Edward Greenstein to read this story existentially rather than critically. The death of Aaron’s sons was not the result of a miscue in the prescribed choreography of the Tabernacle. Their fate conveys the far deeper and more unsettling truth that no amount of elaborate, awesome, and precisely executed ritual should ever leave us with the illusion that we have brought God under human control. The very moment the Tabernacle comes into service, Israel is taught the sober lesson that God’s will remains free and inscrutable, God’s wisdom unfathomable. The religion of the Torah is not a set of magical techniques to get God to do our bidding, but rather a quest to invest our lives with meaning. To rein in the erratic and destructive passions of the earth’s most intelligent animal, that is the Torah’s desperate mission.
So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the Lord of the fruit of the ground. Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and for his offering; but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard.
–Genesis 4:3-5 (NASB)
I’ve read a couple of different commentaries on the death of Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-3) recently. Both said that the “strange” or “alien fire” they offered was fire of their own making. These commentaries said that when God first ignited the fire upon the altar, only that fire was to be used in making offerings to God. A rather simple explanation for a question that has stumped scholars for thousands of years.
No, we can’t make a sacrifice to God of any sort that somehow brings Him under our control or provides Him with something He lacks. Nothing we make, say, or do will manipulate God into behaving or performing in a manner differently than is His intention.
Like prayer, we don’t turn to God with anything that will change Him. The purpose of the sacrifices, the mitzvot, and prayer is to change us.
Likewise the cup that was given to the world’s greatest tzaddik.
And He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and began to pray, saying, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.”
–Luke 22:41-42 (NASB)
It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour, because the sun was obscured; and the veil of the temple was torn in two. And Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” Having said this, He breathed His last.
–Luke 23:44-46 (NASB)
As I write this, I just read a commentary about Passover and atonement which said in part:
“Suffering and pain may be imposed on a tzaddik (righteous person) as an atonement for his entire generation. This tzaddik must then accept this suffering with love for the benefit of his generation, just as he accepts the suffering imposed upon him for his own sake. In doing so, he benefits his generation by atoning for it, and at the same time is himself elevated to a very great degree. Such suffering also includes cases where a tzaddik suffers because his entire generation deserves great punishments, bordering on annihilation, but is spared via the tzaddik’s suffering. In atoning for his generation through his suffering, this tzaddik saves these people in this world and also greatly benefits them in the World-to-Come. In addition, there is a special higher type of suffering that comes to a tzaddik who is even greater and more highly perfected than the ones discussed above. This suffering comes to provide the help necessary to bring about the chain of events leading to the ultimate perfection of mankind as a whole. … Beyond that, the merit and power of these tzaddikim is also increased because of such suffering, and this gives them even greater ability to rectify the damage of others. They can therefore not only rectify their own generation, but can also correct all the spiritual damage done FROM THE BEGINNING, FROM THE TIME OF THE VERY FIRST SINNERS.” (emphasis mine) .. (Derech Hashem, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, translation by Aryeh Kaplan Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 1977, pp 123-125)
If you are a Christian and unfamiliar with Jewish texts, this may seem strange or even startling to you. If you are Jewish and not a believer, this will seem like a gross misappropriation of the writings of the sages, bent in an unintended direction for a mistaken purpose.
I’ve written about just such an interpretation before, both in The Death of the Tzaddik and The Sacrifice at Golgotha. God is not pleased by unauthorized offerings, strange fires, and certainly not by human sacrifice, which we Christians sometimes are mistakenly accused of condoning.
And yet, sometimes God does ask that we put our soul on the altar so to speak, not because human struggle and suffering is His desire, but because we need to learn that as servants of the Most High God, our lives are subject to Him, not to what we want. By offering sacrifices, whether it be a lamb, a prayer, or our time and energy in performing deeds of kindness and charity, we aren’t giving to God something that changes Him, but we are doing what changes us in the manner God desires us to change.
And even that desire of God’s is not for His sake but for our own.
At the last second, God terminated the Akedah or the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22) to spare the life of Isaac and to spare Abraham the death of his only son, the son of inheritance, the son who would carry forward all of the promises God made to Abraham, so they might be sent into the future with Isaac’s son Jacob, with Jacob’s twelve sons, with the tribes they would found, and with all of Israel, today’s Jewish people.
And because God wasn’t asking Abraham for a human sacrifice on the altar by killing his son, He was changing Abraham and changing Isaac, and the result of those changes reverberate down through history in both Judaism and Christianity.
To rein in the erratic and destructive passions of the earth’s most intelligent animal, that is the Torah’s desperate mission.
I might have worded that sentence a little differently, but it’s a sound statement. The Word of God exists to change us, mold us, refine us (like a precious metal in fire if necessary) so that we might become a more spiritually pure product over time.
Rabbi Kalman Packouz in his Passover commentary said the following:
The Midrash tells us that the Jewish people had the same problem in Egypt. Only 1/5 of the Jewish people were on a high enough spiritual level to leave Egypt — and they were on the 49th level of Tuma, spiritual degradation — and were within a hair’s breadth of being destroyed.
Yet, what is amazing is that in the next 49 days they raised themselves to the spiritual level to receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai! Each day we climbed one step higher in spirituality and holiness. Many people study one of the “48 Ways to Wisdom” (Ethics of the Fathers, 6:6 — found in the back of most siddurim, Jewish prayer books) each day in the Sephirat HaOmer period between Pesach and Shavuot — which will be explained below — as a means to personal and spiritual growth. This is a propitious time for perfecting one’s character!
Some of those terms may seem a little odd to some of you but the principle behind them should be clear. We want to change. We want to be a little better tomorrow than we were yesterday. But even as believers and devout disciples of the Master, that’s easier said than done, at least for me (especially for me). Rabbi Packouz suggests Rabbi Noah Weinberg’s series 48 Ways to Wisdom, working through one “way” each day between the start of Passover and the arrival of Shavuot.
Jesus didn’t die just to be a human sacrifice since God abhors the desecration of human life. But if a great tzaddik can atone for the sins of his generation, how much more does the death of the greatest of all tzaddikim atone for the sins of the world, across the vast panorama of human existence?
But there’s nothing we can offer God that changes God. Every sacrifice, every lamb, every bull, every prayer, every mitzvah, and the death of the tzaddik, the Master, exists to change each of us and to bring us a little closer to God. Empty sacrifices are less than useless however. What we do is important but why we do it is crucial. Simply giving a can of soup to a hungry person feeds that hungry person, which is good, and it may temporarily elevate ourselves, at least in our own eyes, which may not be bad either. But if the act doesn’t reveal a little bit more about God to us, and if we don’t become just a little more dedicated and compassionate as God’s servants because of it, then all we’ve done was given one small meal to one single person.
And they’ll be hungry again in a few hours. So much for our “sacrifice.”
It only really, really matters on a vast and even cosmic scale, if it brings us to a greater realization of who is above us:
“Consider three things and you will not come to sin: Know what is above you: an eye that sees and an ear that hears, and all your deeds are recorded in the Book.”
-Pirkei Avot 2:1
Jesus will have died for nothing if we don’t follow him as a result, if we aren’t changed by the crucifixion and resurrection, if his act of inaugurating the era of the New Covenant did not begin to turn our heart of stone into a heart of flesh.
Run to do good. Shun evil. Pray for God to soften you, to change you, to refine you.
Examine me, O Lord, and try me; test my mind and my heart.
For Your lovingkindness is before my eyes, And I have walked in Your truth.
–Psalm 26:2-3 (NASB)
Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.
–Acts 20:28 (NASB)
Please don’t think me vain if I start by praying for myself. It has been all too easy for me to rest for an extended period of time on a spiritual plateau and it’s all too difficult for me to overcome inertia and begin moving again. Going up means I have to overcome gravity, but going down is not the direction I want to take. Like a boat without oars in a river, standing still is just another way of going backward.
Our love of God is not to collapse even when our soul is shattered.
-Ismar Schorsch, pg 412
For redemption is not yet complete.
–A Passover Haggadah, Ed. Herbert Bronstein, pg 34
The King is coming, but there’s still time for each of us, you and me.
“Life gets mighty precious when there’s less of it to waste.”