Shabbat Blog: To Die in The Exercise of Your Passion

Friday, March 25, 2022
Posted by: Rabbi Barry Gelman

On Wednesday, August 7th, 1974, a 24-year-old Frenchman named Philippe Petit stepped out onto a steel wire strung across the 130-foot gap between the tops of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York — close to 1,350 feet above the ground. After a 45-minute performance he was asked, "Weren't you afraid that you were going to die?" While conceding, he replied, "If I die, what a beautiful death, to die in the exercise of your passion."

On a celebratory day, the eighth day of the dedication of  the Mishkan (Tabernacle), after a Divine fire came forth and consumed the offerings, Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, brought an additional incense offering that had not been commanded. 

The Torah records that they are then consumed by fire and “died before God.” (Lev. 10: 1-3)

וַיִּקְח֣וּ בְנֵֽי־אַ֠הֲרֹ֠ן נָדָ֨ב וַאֲבִיה֜וּא אִ֣ישׁ מַחְתָּת֗וֹ וַיִּתְּנ֤וּ בָהֵן֙ אֵ֔שׁ וַיָּשִׂ֥ימוּ עָלֶ֖יהָ קְטֹ֑רֶת וַיַּקְרִ֜יבוּ לִפְנֵ֤י יְהֹוָה֙ אֵ֣שׁ זָרָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֧ר לֹ֦א צִוָּ֖ה אֹתָֽם׃ 

Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before God alien fire, which had not been enjoined upon them.

וַתֵּ֥צֵא אֵ֛שׁ מִלִּפְנֵ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה וַתֹּ֣אכַל אוֹתָ֑ם וַיָּמֻ֖תוּ לִפְנֵ֥י יְהֹוָֽה׃

And fire came forth from God and consumed them; thus they died before God.

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן הוּא֩ אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֨ר יְהֹוָ֤ה ׀ לֵאמֹר֙ בִּקְרֹבַ֣י אֶקָּדֵ֔שׁ וְעַל־פְּנֵ֥י כל־הָעָ֖ם אֶכָּבֵ֑ד וַיִּדֹּ֖ם אַהֲרֹֽן׃ 

Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what God meant by saying: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.” And Aaron was silent.

While many commentaries have attempted to discover what Nadav and Avihu did wrong, some midrashim and classical commentaries suggest that Nadav and Avihu were motivated by their desire to come close to God.

Consider this midrash recalling a conversation between Moses and Aaron after the death of Nadav and Avihu.


אמר לו אחי זה מסיני נאמר לי שעתיד הקב"ה לקדש את הבית הזה, ובאדם גדול אני מקדשו, והייתי אומר או בי או בך הבית הזה מתקדש, ועכשיו נמצאו שני בניך גדולים ממני וממך


Moses said to Aaron, 'Aaron, my brother! I knew that this House was to be sanctified through the beloved ones of the Omnipresent, but I thought it would be either through me or through you. Now I see that they [Nadab and Abihu] were greater than either of us!'

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein puts it this way: 

“Nadab and Abihu, in this interpretation, were motivated by their overwhelming desire to be close to God. No longer perpetrators of a betrayal of biblical law, they are, rather, overcome with religious fervor. This is the approach of the early midrash, Sifra, which states: 

 "ויקחו בני אהרן" – אף הם בשמחתם. כיון שראו אש חדשה עמדו להוסיף אהבה על אהבה. "ויקחו" – אין 'קיחה' אלא שמחה.

And the sons of Aaron took": They, too, in their joy, when they saw the new fire, added "love to love." "and they took": "taking" is nothing other than joy.

According to these Midrashim Nadav and Avihu died exercising their passion. These midrashim and commentaries go out of their way to show that that desire was holy.”

The enthusiasm for religious life was labeled by Rabbi Norman Lamm as “bren”  (Yiddish for  burn), as he wrote: “We must dedicate ourselves to the tasks of Judaism with new initiative, with a "bren," with greater depth and intensity.”

Isn’t it interesting that the word used for more intense commitment, “bren,” refers to a burning desire, and Nadav and Avihu were burned by a fire as a result of their spiritual desires. 

Recently, the world has been made aware of two very different manifestations of this “bren.” 

First there is this tweet of a young girl defying the Russian crackdown against any opposition to its invasion of Ukraine.

What courage! What passion and “bren” to do the right thing.  And there are countless other examples of this, like housewivesxfbren and grandmothers taking up arms against Russia. I saw another tweet this week from a young woman who said she did not expect to live much longer as she attempted to resist the take over of Mariupol. These people, willing to die -  in the exercise of their passion  - truly inspire.

On a different scale, yet inspiring nonetheless, was the commemoration of the life of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky after his death last week. Rabbi Kanievsky was a man who was completely dedicated to his passion - Torah study. 

Born in 1928, he studied Torah eighteen hours a day for his entire life. That amounts to approximately 538,000 hours of Torah study, far exceeding the 10,000 hours it is said someone needs to master a skill or acquire mastery over a particular knowledge base, an idea popularized by Malcolm Gladwell.

Even if our passion is not Torah study, who is not moved and inspired by a person who is so committed to something that they do it for eighteen hours a day for 84 years? In the process, Rabbi Kanievsky became one of the leading religious authorities in the world, even though he held no official position. It is said that between 800,000 and 1 million people attended his funeral in Israel. He too lived his passion and showed the world what commitment to an ideal can yield. 

These stories inspire me to be more committed to the important things in my life - to spend more time with my family, more time studying Torah, more time doing acts of Chessed / Kindness for others. 

Olga Misik (the girl in the tweet above) reminds me that there are things really worth fighting for. She reminds me of the great story I heard from my teacher, Rabbi J. J. Schacter, about a man who died and is escorted to the place of heavenly judgment.  God welcomes this individual and asks: “where are your scars?” The person is confused. “What do you mean, where are my scars? Why should I have scars? To which God replied:  “Well...Wasn’t there anything worth fighting for?”

When the death-defying Frenchman Philippe Petit was asked, "Why did you do it?" he answered, "There is no why... Life should be lived on the edge. You have to exercise rebellion: to refuse to tape yourself to rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself, to see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge — and then you are going to live your life on a tightrope." Imagine finding a way to fill the structures of our lives with passion and fire.

Rabbi Barry Gelman is the Director of the Bobbi & Vic Samuels Center for Jewish Living and Learning (CJLL). Rabbi Gelman teaches a number of classes at the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC and is working on injecting Jewish content to existing programs as well as developing new programs to highlight the beauty and relevance of

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