What is the place of religious passion in the life that is dedicated to halakha? After eight days of sanctifying and inaugurating the Mishkan, a fire comes out from heaven and consumes the final sacrifices of the inauguration. The people are so overwhelmed by religious feeling that they bow down and prostrate themselves.
Two of Aharon’s sons are even more moved by this experience. They are so overtaken by the events that they are driven by their religious passion to get even closer to God. Each one brings a fire pan of incense and offers it to God. The result? A fire comes down from God and, rather than consuming their offering, consumes Nadav and Avihu, killing them. Their religious passion leads to their death.
What was so wrong with their offering? The Torah emphasizes that what they brought was “אֲשֶׁ֧ר לֹ֦א צִוָּ֖ה אֹתָֽם – what God had not commanded,” (Leviticus 10.1). The message seems clear — our way of connecting to God is following what God commands us to do. It is living a structured life defined by obedience. This message is repeated multiple times in the remainder of the parsha. When Moshe relays commandments to Aharon and his sons, the Torah says that “they did as Moshe had commanded.” (Leviticus 10.4 and 10.7).
This point is made even more explicit in the passage that follows. God commands Aharon that he and his sons — Kohanim — may not drink wine or intoxicating liquid when they enter the Tent of Meeting. Wine and liquor can create an elevated mental state, allowing a person to act more freely and outside of the norms that generally govern his actions. Such a state of mind, however, is exactly what is not desired in the service of God. Rather, the Kohanim must be clear-minded and sober, to “separate between the holy and profane, and between that which is forbidden and that which is permitted” (Leviticus 10.10). This is nothing other than a life of halakha: to live a regimented life, being constantly aware of what is permitted and what is forbidden.
In the ending section of the parsha — where the kosher and non-kosher animals are categorized — this message is repeated yet again. This categorization is nothing other than, as we are told, to “separate between what is permitted and what is forbidden, between the animals that may be eaten, and those which may not” (Leviticus 11.47).
In our own lives, we have experienced the horrific results of unrestrained religious passion. Flying a plane into the Twin Towers, religiously-driven terrorism and wars — all of these make it unquestionably clear that religious passion must be contained. If it is to exist, it must do so within the bounds of morality, within what “God has commanded.”
I think, however, that we may have over-learned this message. Our lives tend to be only halakha. Isn’t there a place for religious passion if it operates within the proper boundaries?
Rav Kook, for one, believed so. For him, over the 2000 years of living in exile, our religious life became desiccated. It turned into empty forms of worship, halakha without agadata, a body without a soul. With the return to Israel, this sickly creature began showing signs of life, and there was a return to religious passion and creativity. For Rav Kook, that is a central part of what it means to connect to God, to be alive in one’s religion. The halakha creates the boundaries for that religious life, true, but that dimension is necessary and essential.
We have too often focused on the “אֲשֶׁ֧ר לֹ֦א צִוָּ֖ה אֹתָֽם” to ignore or even exorcise a life of religious passion. What would it mean to look at Nadav and Avihu with envy for people like them, who can be so moved to get closer to God? What would it mean to bring soul and religious longing into action and obedience? It would be a transformation of a life of observance to a life of religiosity.