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Two Minutes of Torah

>Two Minutes of Torah: Shemini (Leviticus 10:1-15) – The Dangers of Sacred Space

>I have a very complicated relationship with the Kotel (the Western Wall in Jerusalem). When I was in Jerusalem for my gap year, and a friend in England was seriously ill, I went to the Kotel to pray and to place a note in the wall, asking for her recovery. I believed that there was a special significance to that place and that a prayer placed in the cracks of that wall could make a difference. Later that same year I returned to the Kotel on Shavuot with a group of Reform and Conservative Jews, so that we could celebrate the festival in an egalitarian community. As we stood there we were shouted at, had stones thrown at us, and required the protection of the police to ensure our safety.

I feel a connection to the Kotel as part of the support wall of the plaza upon which the Temple once stood. But at the same time I do not like the fact that it has essentially become a Haredi synagogue, in which my Jewish practice is not welcome. This relationship is further complicated by the fact that I also feel uneasy with the tension which exists between the Jewish and Muslim communities in relation to the sacred space of the Temple Mount.

Sacred space holds a power over us on a theoretical level, but as we read in the Torah it may also be dangerous. When Moses approached the burning bush, encountering God for the first time, he was told: ‘Do not come any closer; take off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground’ (Exodus 3:5). Precautions had to be taken before stepping onto the sacred ground.

In the wilderness, the Tabernacle represented portable sacred space, and it too was a dangerous place to enter. ‘Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire in it, and put incense on it, and offered strange fire before Adonai, which God commanded them not. And there went out fire from Adonai, and devoured them, and they died before Adonai’ (Leviticus 10:1-2). The text does not explain exactly what the brothers did, but the strange fire which they brought to the Tabernacle led to their death.

Some have suggested that it was the nature of the fire which caused the punishment, while others have proposed that they were somehow in an unfit state to approach the Tabernacle with an offering for God. The text is not clear; however, it does clarify that whatever they did, it was not commanded by God. They behaved in a way which God had not requested, and their punishment was to be consumed by the very substance they had brought to the Tabernacle – fire.

Nadav and Avihu were consumed, literally by the fire, but perhaps also metaphorically by their devotion to the sacred space of the Tabernacle. As Priests they were among the select group of people serving in the Tabernacle, and yet this was not sufficient, they had to find a way to be close to the sacred space, even when God did not require it. They did not worship in the way which had been commanded, and instead they brought strange fire to God, fire which then consumed and killed them.

The passion and zeal which is often expressed around the Kotel and the Temple Mount may be considered the strange fire of our generation. People treat the place in a way which God never commanded, and I would imagine that God does not welcome it. This strange fire of today, just like the strange fire of Nadav and Avihu, is dangerous, with the power to consume and destroy us. We must be careful that we are not consumed by the idea of a sacred space or holy ground. As a Jewish people we have survived for almost two thousand years without a Temple, and we have found ways of bringing God into our midst and into our communities without requiring one specific concrete structure. Our survival is testimony to the fact that we have learned the lessons of Nadav and Avihu.

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