Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47

Just before the priests are to be installed, Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu
offer “strange fire” before God and die in the process.


THE STORY OF THE STRANGE FATE of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu can be read as a warning… or as a promise.

On the face of it, it looks like they did something very wrong and were punished for it, thereby leaving us with a stern warning: You must play by the rules… or else! The text states that they, “offered strange fire which God had not commanded them. And fire came forth from God and consumed them and they died before God.” (Leviticus 10:1-2)

But perhaps Nadav and Avihu did not do anything wrong, but instead did something extraordinarily right. Perhaps death was not a punishment, but instead a passionate Divine embrace of beloveds.

Moses conveys God’s explanation of the event to Aaron with these words: “Through them that are near Me, I will be sanctified; and upon the face of all people I will be glorified.” (Leviticus 10:3)

These are not the words of an angry God. Those who were close to Nadav and Avihu are forbidden to mourn them. Is this because God is celebrating their return?

WHEN I RECEIVE this story as a blessing, Nadav and Avihu’s death becomes a demonstration of the power of transformation. I look for the place within me that is willing to offer up everything, directly from the impulse of the heart, without being asked, without conforming to what is deemed normal. The fire that I give seems strange because it is unmediated by religious convention. I give the strange raw essence of my passion, my fire, and then I am transformed through my giving. God takes me, rather than my gift. And isn’t this just what I had intended? I ask to be taken, used, transformed by the force that is constantly re-creating the world. I surrender self, form, knowledge, even religion that I might be returned to my Divine essence.

Shemini blesses me with this possibility, this promise: There comes a moment when all rules, procedures, methods, even my spiritual attainments are stripped away from me, and all I have left to give is my self. In that moment my giving is entirely unselfconscious. It is a gesture of pure soul yearning to return to its essence. In that moment of selflessness, the glory of God appears upon the faces of all people. In fact it is everywhere.


AFTER RECOUNTING the story of Nadav and Avihu, which is about ecstasy, wild abandon, supreme intoxication, Shemini goes on to describe the path of discernment, responsibility and sobriety. Our spiritual challenge is to embrace the wisdom of both of these paths.

THE PATH OF SOBRIETY requires that I do everything possible to keep myself clear so that I may be of service. I must clear myself of prejudice, distortion, pride, despair… anything that might cloud an accurate vision of the truth of this moment or weaken my power to respond.

I must be careful about what I consume and what words I say. I must monitor my state of consciousness because it is the lens through which I perceive the world.

The path of sobriety requires an impeccability that is inspired by knowing that this day might be my last.

THE PATH OF ECSTASY requires that I be willing to surrender everything so that I might be held in the Divine embrace. On this path my sense of separateness dissolves. There is a happy confusion of subject and object.

It is necessary to learn to walk both these paths in the realization of holiness. Our sobriety gives us the strength and wisdom to hold and channel the ecstasy. Our ecstasy challenges rigidity and brings vitality to the heart of our sobriety.

In Shemini the reason that is given for our quest for holiness is that we must become like God, our Source. Becoming holy is, then realizing who we truly are. Towards the end of Shemini we are given this spiritual challenge:

I am YHVH (the Ground of Being) your God;
Sanctify yourselves and be holy
For I am holy.



The practice of chant can combine the exacting discernment of the path of sobriety with the wild abandon of the path of ecstasy.

SET ASIDE 10 MINUTES FOR THIS PRACTICE at the end of your regular meditation or prayer. It is best done when the mind is already somewhat settled.

LET YOURSELF BE DRAWN TO A SACRED PHRASE from liturgy or scripture that has some power for you right now. Begin to chant it with a simple melody.

FOR THE FIRST 5 MINUTES FOCUS all of your attention on the sounds of the phrase, first the consonants, and then the vowels. Notice exactly how each sound feels in your mouth, what kind of breath each sound requires. Notice exactly where in your body each sound resonates.

WITH EACH REPETITION OF THE CHANT, focus more intently. Be a scientist of sound investigating each consonant and each vowel to discern its effect on your energy.

FOR THE LAST 5 MINUTES, LET GO of all focus and let the chant chant you. Surrender to its transformative power.

Torah Journeys: The Inner Path to the Promised Land
©2006 Shefa Gold. All rights reserved.