Our parsha this week happens to be one of my favorites – not because it is a particularly happy tale, but because I was first introduced to it through song. The Indigo Girls’ 1987 hit “Strange Fire,” compares what happens in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shmini, to “an offering of love,” even though it might not seem like it at first glance. Two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, enter into the sanctuary without being asked, and offer what the Torah calls esh zarah, alien or foreign fire. As a result, they are consumed by fire themselves and perish on the spot.
Torah commentators are mostly in agreement that Nadab and Abihu acted under less-than holy pretenses by bringing forward their unsanctioned offering. Some argue that they were ambitious in their actions; eager to impress the Israelites and depose Moses and Aaron from their positions of leadership. Others assume that they were arrogant which made them feel accountable to no one. Few scholars take a friendlier view, assuming that the young priests were merely overcome with religious zeal, and eager to add their own offerings to those proscribed by God.
Having been introduced to the notion of strange fire by the Indigo Girls, I tend to agree with the latter scholars – that Nadab and Abihu acted out of earnest faith and dedication. “This is a message/ a message of love/ love that moves from the inside out/ love that never grows tired/ I come to you with Strange Fire.” What if Amy Ray’s words capture a possible reframe of this story? So consumed by love and devotion were these two young priests, that they were, in turn, consumed by God’s matched appreciation? After all, aren’t we all full of our own versions of strange fire that light us up and make us who we are?
– Rabbi Callie Schulman