To explore that question, let’s consider a story within this week’s parasha, Sh’mini (Lev. 9:1–11:47), where we read, after the inauguration of the priesthood,
Then the glory of Hashem appeared to all the people, and fire came forth from before Hashem and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces. And Aaron’s sons Nadav and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before Hashem alien fire, which he had not commanded them. And fire came forth from before Hashem and consumed them; thus they died before Hashem. (Lev. 9:23a–10:2)
The phrase “before Hashem” appears four times in this brief passage, which is even more striking in the original Hebrew, where it reads literally “the face” or, a little less literally, “the presence” of Hashem. Fire comes forth from God’s “face” and all the people in awe fall “on their faces”—exactly the right response. In this awe-filled setting Nadav and Avihu present to the Lord’s face esh zarah, alien fire, and meet their sudden end.
Now, the commentators discuss at great length and with much insight the problem with this offering and why it is termed esh zarah, so I’ll limit myself to one simple point. Nadav and Avihu are out of order, disastrously out of order. This is a moment when God’s presence or face is so evident that the only response is to fall on one’s own face—and Aaron’s sons pick this moment to wing it. At the climax of all that God has commanded and all of Israel’s obedience in response, Nadav and Avihu, who are central players in this whole drama, take center stage with something God has not commanded.
Surely this external act of disorder must reflect an internal disorder, which leads them to miss so badly the significance of the moment. Indeed, it may be that the Torah doesn’t explain what’s wrong with their action in any detail because the real problem is the internal disorder behind the action.
My messy desk won’t yield such disastrous consequences, but I have to admit that it’s a distraction, and a barometer of my inner distraction. I wonder if I’ve missed any holy moments, or responded wrongly at such moments, because of the distraction evident in my surroundings. The encouraging thing is that it works both ways; by attending to the symptom of outer disorder I can help straighten out the underlying cause of inner disorder. And as I correct my internal disorder, I believe I’ll see increasing external order, and increasing alertness to the holiness of the moment.
1 Order. Mussar program #16, © 2007 JewishPathways.com. I first quoted this in my 9/17/2010 commentary on Order.