Shemini – I Feel, Therefore I Am
There are several types of blessings in our liturgy. The most common is the category of blessing recited before eating. Before we eat, and in some cases before we sniff a pleasant aroma, we recite a blessing, attributing to God the benefit we are about to enjoy. The blessing of Hamotzi recited over bread is one such blessing.
Another category is blessings of praise. Every morning we recite 15 blessings of praise to God for our functioning body and the gift of another day. Similar blessings are recited upon seeing or hearing the wonders of God’s creation. The blessing of Shehecheyanu is a prime example of a blessing of praise.
A third category is blessings recited before performing a Mitzvah. Different from others, these blessings have a few words added to the formula. “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to…”
The translation of ‘Mitzvah’ is commandment. We often equate Mitzvah with “good deed,” and often that is also true, but the primary meaning of Mitzvah is “commandment.” The blessing recited before performing a Mitzvah, such as lighting the Shabbat candles or donning a tallit, thus invokes that terminology, recognizing the act as a Mitzvah and proclaiming that we are sanctified through that commandment.
Parshat Shemini records the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, two of Aaron’s sons who were anointed as priests to serve in the newly constructed Tabernacle. During the celebrations dedicating the Tabernacle these two young men, in their zeal to serve God in the new Temple, offered burning incense before God. They were burnt by a resulting fire, and the euphoria of the day was shattered. In the Torah’s words they took their pans “…and they brought before God a foreign fire that He had not commanded them.” (Leviticus 10:1)
To the reader it is difficult to ascertain what terrible crime Nadav and Avihu committed to deserve death. Numerous sources in our tradition explain where they had gone wrong, but a close reading of the verse reveals that their offering itself was the cause. They brought a strange fire that was not commanded. Nadav and Avihu performed a non-Mitzvah.
In as much as one is obligated to perform a Mitzvah, one is often restricted to the parameters of the Mitzvah, one is confined to that which was commanded. The Gerrer Rebbe cites his grandfather in his work Sfat Emet, explaining that the power of a Mitzvah lies in the fact that it is commanded. Absent a command the act becomes foreign, self-serving, devoid of value.
We live in a “post-truth” time, when emotional appeal has superseded rationality and reason. Fundraising is driven by crowd-sourcing, which appeals to our hearts rather than our intellect. That is not a bad thing, but when we fail to invoke our reason our passions can get the better of us. 1000 deaths in Afghanistan are ignored by the media, but a photo of a child washed up on a Syrian beach goes viral and sways public opinion, while hundreds of equally tragic casualties fail to reach our radar. We do good things because they feel good. We participate in marches and protests with self-righteous indignation, because it sure feels right! This is not all bad. God has endowed us with emotions and we need to use our passions appropriately. But the danger is in the attitude. One of the greatest diseases afflicting humanity today is self-righteousness. Our generation declares: “I feel, therefore I am.”
Swept up with the spiritual energy of the dedication, Nadav and Avihu allowed their passions to get the better of them. They acted with emotions, doing what felt right, rather than what was commanded. Their offering, in the context of a commandment, would have been correct and pleasing to God, but outside of that context it was out of place and inappropriate. Given the high voltage of the spiritual energy present, their error was fatal. There was no room for such innovation when the fine tuned operations of the Tabernacle demanded strict adherence to the letter of the commandment. Aaron lost two of his sons because they allowed their emotions to guide their actions, ignoring the commandment aspect around which a Mitzvah revolves.