Matters of Timing
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aharon, took their incense pans and put fire and
incense in them and offered an unauthorized fire before God, which He did
not command them to offer ... (VaYikrah 10:1)
When an evil person acts and fails, it is usually because his intended
action was inherently evil. However, when great people fail, especially
miserably, then what?
... A fire went out from before G-d and consumed them and they died before
G-d. Moshe said to Aharon, "This is what G-d told me: I will be sanctified
through them who approach Me ..." (VaYikrah 10:1)
Moshe told Aharon, "I knew that this house was to be sanctified by those
who are beloved to G-d, but I thought it would be through me or you. Now I
see that these (Nadav and Avihu) are greater than me and you! (Rashi)
On a simple level, the level called pshat, Nadav and Avihu made a simple,
but tragic mistake. Swept up in the euphoria of the Divine Presence
descending over the Mishkan, Nadav and Avihu allowed their intense desire
to come close to G-d override their obligation to act within halachic
boundaries. And, according to Rebi Yishmael, the fact that they had been
intoxicated from wine at the time didn't help the matter (Rashi).
Alternatively, there is Rebi Eliezer's pshat: Nadav and Avihu only died
because they rendered halachic decisions in the presence of their teacher
(Moshe), something for which the Talmud concludes is punishable by death
(Eiruvin 63a). Alternatively again, Nadav and Avihu became punishable by
death back at the time they ascended Har Sinai with Moshe, having viewed
the Shechina when they had not been permitted to look (Rashi, Shemos
However, there is another level of explanation, a far deeper one, one that
can also be drawn out of the following statement:
Anyone who pushes the moment, the moment pushes him off; all who are pushed
off by the moment, the moment will be pushed off for them. (Brochos 64a)
Life, very often, is a matter of timing. The right action performed with
even the right intention, but at the wrong time, can have a disastrous
effect. Life is not just a matter of knowing what to do and how to do it,
but knowing when to do it as well. Sometimes we can have a burning desire
to do something, or to say something, but it is just not the moment. If we
keep our peace, then we are often around to complete our intention within
the correct set of circumstances. If we don't, then, we and others often
become victims of the very crisis we tried to alleviate!
Ever since Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and was
banished from the Garden of Eden, history has been a process of returning.
While the average person may have accepted life outside the garden as
"normal" ("If we're here, we might as well enjoy ourselves!"), others more
attuned to what is wrong in the spiritual reality and what needs fixing up,
have been working furiously to right the wrong, often at the risk of their
own lives. According to the more esoteric side of our tradition, Nadav and
Avihu had been such people, and it was to this that Moshe referred.
We know from the medical world and similar disciplines that what is visible
on the outside is often a sign of what is taking place on the hidden
inside. For example, when a person catches a virus, eventually he will get
a fever and his eyes will become droopy, along with a host of other
symptoms. People will say, "You don't look well ..." because, they can't
feel what we feel, but they can tell by the way we look on the outside
somewhat how we must feel on the inside.
The same thing is true with respect to the physical-spiritual world.
Everything in the physical world is just an "encasement" of a spiritual
reality, acting as a threshold, so-to-speak, to allow us to access that
spiritual reality, just as our bodies envelope our souls and allow us to
use their potential. The Mishkan was a building, but it was also the
physical expression of a spiritual concept. The altar was a base with a
fire on it, but every detail embodied another holy, spiritual concept. And
the incense was made of spices, but it also acted as a "conduit" between
two realities, to achieve a desired spiritual impact through a physical
act. This is why it could stop plagues of death, as the Angel of Death had
revealed to Moshe atop of Har Sinai (Shabbos 89a).
Nadav and Avihu not only knew this, but they also knew what to do and how
to do it. They knew what was missing from creation as a result of Adam's
eating from the tree, and how the incense played a role in rectifying the
situation. They had even been prepared to risk their lives to trigger the
However, they had misjudged the moment and had over-estimated their
abilities to accomplish what they had set out to do. This was a mistake
that was later made by Shlomo HaMelech, and three of the four rabbis who
entered "Pardes" (see Chagigah 14b). However, in each case, the noble goal
had been the rectification of creation and Adam's mistake; in each case,
the timing had been wrong and the ability, over-estimated.
At least three messages emerge. First of all, it is exceedingly important
to know one's ability and place, and not to over-exceed one's limitations.
This is not so easy to do, since we constantly struggle to find the balance
between under-achieving and over-achieving. People, in general, tend to
gravitate to one of the two extremes, and finding the balance is a
Secondly, it is crucial to never lose sight of the spiritual and physical
context within which we live at any given moment in time. It is from this
knowledge that we draw the strength to say, "No, now is not the time," or,
"If not now, then when?" A world war, G-d forbid, can begin because of a
wrongly-timed question or response!
Thirdly, halacha is halacha. As the Maharal states, had Nadav and Avihu
acted as they had prior to the giving of Torah at Har Sinai, they would
have been heroes. However, once Torah was given and halacha was
established, it became the only way to go. Even should a person, for some
strange reason, feel smarter than the Torah and want to serve G-d in his
own way, he should not. Service of G-d, from the time the Torah was given
was fixed and established, and keeping it, even in the face of confusion,
is a high level of serving G-d.
As mentioned above, Rashi points out that Nadav and Avihu could have been
killed at Har Sinai as well, long before they offered their "unauthorized
fire." Why did G-d wait until the dedication of the Mishkan? Because, says
Rashi, He didn't want to mix sorrow with simcha!
Really? If that was a reason to postpone the punishment of Nadav and Avihu,
then why not further postpone their death in this week's parsha until after
the dedication ceremony was over! If ever there was a moment of mixing of
sorrow and simcha, of being elevated to a high level of joy only to drop at
breakneck speed to the depths of sorrow, it had to have been at this
crucial time that fire came out from the Holy of Holies and burned the
souls right out of Nadav and Avihu! What was the difference?
We find a similar situation had occurred before as well, when Moshe had
descended with the first set of Tablets which he later broke before the
eyes of the people. Why did Moshe bring the miraculous Tablets down, if
only to break them? Had Moshe not been informed of the building and
worshipping of the golden calf below, we could understand why Moshe had
"innocently" brought the Tablets down, and then broke them. However, G-d
had told Moshe what to expect while still on top of the mountain, and yet,
Moshe insisted on bringing the Tablets down ... as if he had intended to
break them before the eyes of the people from the moment he had left G-d's
One answer is that Moshe knew full well that the Tablets were going to be
denied to the Jewish people because of what had happened, even broken and
lost until the time of Moshiach. However, Moshe wanted them to see the
miracle at least once. He wanted the Jewish people to see what they had
received, and lost. He wanted the errant nation to know what can be when we
devote ourselves to G-d and do not stray. And finally, Moshe wanted the
Jewish people to see what would be returned to them, in the End-of-Days,
when all will be corrected and Torah will be returned to its former glory.
With the smashing of the Luchos (Tablets) came the smashing of a dream.
However, with the smashing of a dream also came the beginning of the
fulfillment of another, more spectacular dream, just as Rebi Akiva
understood much later on in history:
Rabban Gamliel, Rebi Elazar ben Azariah, Rebi Yehoshua, and Rebi Akiva ...
were going to Jerusalem. When they arrived at Har Tzofim (Mt. Scopus), they
tore their clothing (in mourning). When they arrived at the Temple Mount,
they saw a fox coming out from where the Holy of Holies used to be, and
they weeped. However, Rebi Akiva laughed. They asked him, "Akiva, why do
He asked them, "Why do you cry?"
They answered him, "The place of which it is written, 'The commoner that
shall enter there shall be put to death.' (BaMidbar 1:51) is the
fulfillment of the prophecy, 'For the mountain of Zion, which is desolate,
the foxes will walk upon it.' (Eichah 5:18)."
He told them, "I laugh because of the verse, 'I will take to Me reliable
witnesses to record, Uriah the priest, and Zechariah ...' (Yishaya 8:2).
Why is Uriah mentioned together with Zechariah when the former was from the
time of the first Temple and the latter was from the second Temple era? To
make the prophecy of Zechariah dependent on the prophecy of Uriah! Uriah
said, 'Therefore shall Zion for your sake be plowed as a field, and
Jerusalem shall become heaps.' (Michah 3:12); Zechariah said, 'There will
sit old men and old women in the expansive places of Jerusalem.' (Zechariah
8:4). While the prophecy of Uriah was not fulfilled, I feared that the
prophecy of Zechariah might not be realized. However, now that I see that
Uriah's prophecy has come true, I am now certain that Zechariah's prophecy
will also come true."
Having heard this explanation, they told him, "Akiva, you have comforted
us! Akiva, you have consoled us!" (Makkos 24b)
This message of the above scenario can be applied also to what happened at
the time of the Chanukas HaMishkan (Dedication of the Mishkan). It is true
that the supreme joy of creating a physical dwelling that could "house" the
Divine Presence was snatched a way from the Jewish people before they even
had a chance to appreciate it. However, had Nadav and Avihu died before
that time, there would have been no such moment at all! Had they died after
that time, the lessons their deaths were to teach would have been lost, or
at least "watered down."
Therefore, the death of these two great people was timed just right, to
allow the Jewish nation to witness perfection, at least for one fleeting
moment, so that it could be etched on the national psyche; it was an image
to be carried with us on some level of consciousness throughout the
generations, until Moshiach's arrival, like a seed of hope planted in the
backs of our minds. Like the Luchos broken by Moshe, the disaster may have
soured the moment for generations to come. However, it also allowed us to
know with our own eyes what could be, and what will be when the time is
right, and Jewish history has been allowed to run its course along the way
to the Final Redemption.
The tragedy of this week's parsha is echoed in the Haftorah, which is taken
from Shmuel 2:6:1. The Aron HaKodesh (Holy Ark) had been taken captive by
the Philistines back in the days of Eli, and had been returned unwillingly
since all those who held onto it suffered. However, it had failed to make
its way back to Jerusalem where it belonged, and after G-d granted David
tremendous success against his enemies, he sought to finally bring the Ark
Along the way, a mishap occurred. David had the Ark placed on a cart, and
began to return it to Jerusalem amidst all kinds of celebration and
merriment. However, Uzzah, one of David's favorites, seeing the swaying of
the cart feared that the Ark would fall off and placed his hand on it to
steady it. And,
"G-d became angry with Uzzah, and struck him down there for his error, and
there he died by the Ark of G-d. David was angered because G-d had made a
breach against Uzzah ... David was afraid of G-d that day, and he said,
'How can the Ark of G-d come to me?' David did not want to bring to him the
Ark of G-d, into the City of David ..." (Shmuel 2:6:7)
Just as in the days of the Mishkan, in a moment, joy had been transformed
into shock and mourning. As in the days of the Mishkan, those who had
participated in what was to be a great celebration became extremely
dismayed and distraught.
The truth is, though it was Uzzah who was punished, it was really David who
had made the initial error:
He (David) erred in a matter that even school children know: "Because the
service of the holy things belonged to them, they shall bear them upon
their shoulders." (BaMidbar 7:9). However, since he remarked, "Your
statutes have been like songs to me in the house of my sojournings ..."
(Tehillim 119:54), he was punished through this incident, and Uzzah died
because of him. Therefore, when they [later] brought it (the Ark) from the
house of Oved-Edom, they brought it upon their shoulders, as it is stated,
"He said to them, 'You are the chief of the father of the Levites; sanctify
yourselves and your brothers, and you shall bring up the Ark ... for since
at first you did not [lift it], the L-rd our G-d caused a breach in us,
since at first we did not seek Him in a proper manner." (Sota 35a)
There are many lessons and deep meanings to draw out of this story, and the
commentators do in an effort to appreciate just exactly what crime caused
this punishment. However, the Talmud focuses on a specific error that David
made, and that was that he called Torah "song" (z'miros). The Ark should
have been carried on the shoulders of the Levites,
But isn't that a good thing? Didn't Moshe and the Jewish people "sing"
after the splitting of the Sea in praise of G-d, something for which they
were greatly praised?
The answer is, there is song, and then there is song. In English, the
difference may not readily emerge, but in Hebrew the difference between the
two is very distinct: z'miros and shira. The former was what David had
referred to, and the latter was what Moshe had sung after the miracle of
the sea. What is the difference between the two Hebrew terms?
Shira is what the soul sings, all the time, except that the "white noise"
of the body and the physical world around us does not allow our ears to
hear the soul's praise of G-d. However, occasionally, when something
happens to "neutralize" our bodies, say a tremendous miracle or something
similar like becoming inebriated on Purim, the body is silenced and the
soul is allowed to sing freely and to be heard.
Z'miros, on the other hand, is something more limited. It is the body's
response to some sort of stimulation, and the spiritual quality of the
z'mirah will be dependent upon what type of stimulation was felt, and how
much. When used properly, z'mirah can be used to elevate the body to the
point that it can begin to hear the song of the soul, but it is not shira
Torah may be physical, inasmuch as it is written down on physical
parchment. But make no mistake about it; Torah is not physical, and is on
the level of the highest portion of the Jewish soul. According to the
Ramban, from the first "beis" of "Bereishis" at the beginning of the Torah,
until the "lamed" of "Yisroel" at the end of the entire Torah, all the
words comprise names of G-d (aside from the one's we know about).
Torah is not z'mirah, it is shira. To treat it on a lower level, by not
treating it with the proper respect or respecting its guidelines, no matter
how intense and sincere the drive may be to come close to G-d, is a
violation of Torah and cannot bring one close to G-d. This David learned
the hard way, but it is a message for us to take to heart without having to
go through the same result as Uzzah, Nadav, and Avihu.
This week's parsha begins the laws of kashrus, providing us with a list of
animals we are allowed to eat, and those which are not permitted to us.
Perhaps one of the most famous of all the animals not permitted to the Jew,
and, de facto a symbol of "treif" food, is the pig, which in Hebrew is
According to the midrash, pig is called "chazir" because G-d is destined
"lehachaziro" (to return it) to the Jewish people in Moshiach's time.
However, for many this hard to understand. "Make up your mind!" they say,
"Is pig kosher or treif?!" If it is treif, they reason, then it should
always be treif; if it is going to be kosher, then why is it not kosher
This just re-emphasizes how much mitzvos, no matter how they are physically
expressed in this world (since Har Sinai and the giving of Torah), really
express eternal concepts that can be fulfilled in any way G-d sees fit.
(Another midrash states that Ya'akov, when he inserted the sticks in the
ground to cause the sheep to multiply (Bereishis 30:38), he performed a
spiritual act similar to that of Tefillin!) If G-d says that pig is treif
now, then it is treif. When He will permit it again, then it will become
In fact, Adam's sin was not that he ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good
and Evil, but that he from it at the wrong time. According to the Arizal,
had Adam waited three hours until the very first Shabbos, then he would
have been permitted to eat with G-d's blessing what previously had been
forbidden. Then, according to the Shem M'Shmuel, Adam would have risen to
even higher level of holiness which would have made the eating from the
Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil a "holy eating."
If so, in a very real sense, observing the Jewish dietary laws also
rectifies the sin of Adam himself, helping us to also eat in "holiness." In
other words, when we live on a low spiritual level, then we must act one
way to elevate ourselves to a more ideal level of kedusha (holiness). Once
we arrive at this level (as in the days of Moshiach), then our inherent
holiness will allow us to respond to the physical world around us (which,
in itself, will also increase in holiness based upon man's spiritual
growth), in a different manner.
In the meantime, we have to follow the Jewish dietary laws to help elevate
ourselves to a more desired level of spirituality and holiness. Even should
we solve all the physical problems that arise from eating chazir, it will
only Moshiach who can usher in a period of existence during which the
reality of mitzvos in this world can be altered.
Copyright © 1998 by Rabbi Pinchas Winston
and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author teaches at both Neve
Yerushalyim (Jerusalem) and Neveh
Rabbi Winston has authored fourteen books on Jewish philosophy
(hashkofa). If you enjoy Rabbi Winston's Perceptions on the
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