Throughout the Bible we read of the rise and fall of the Jewish people. And many times the most precious moments, the peak of our spiritual success is when our vulnerability is suddenly exposed – and some of the greatest mistakes occurred. One example occurred in the reading of two weeks ago during the inaugural ceremony. Moses called the elders of Israel to inform them that they would be granted atonement for the incident involving the golden calf.
It was a day of enormous celebration. Then, suddenly, a dreadful event occurred, a huge “bang” that shocked the Jewish people and left its mark on history: “Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu…brought before G-d a foreign fire…And fire went forth from before the G-d and consumed them, and they died before the G-d.”
This story, recounted this week, is one of the most widely discussed in Jewish literature and kaballah. And we read it every Yom Kippur. The obvious question is: what exactly happened here? Usually an untimely death is associated with a mistake or accident, and the typical conception is likewise that they were punished. But the wording is vague and to gain the full picture, one must explore the various commentaries.
The most well known elucidation is Rashi who indicates that the “foreign fire” was drinking wine. This seems to be a clear mistake on their part. Yet elsewhere he explains that, upon viewing their death, Moses relates to Aaron- “now I see that they are greater than us.” The reader is then left wondering how these two contradictory explanations fit together.
This problem is exacerbated by commentary of the Ohr Hachaim who relates their praise in great detail. Focusing on the precise wording in the opening lines of this week, he notes that “the verse alludes to the extraordinary quality of the righteous, that even while sensing that they will die as a result they cannot resist drawing near to G-d, fervently pursuing the sweet delight…to the point of their soul departing their body.”
Now, if they were punished for “coming close” we must ask ourselves – what type of a sin is that? Isn’t that our goal – to come close to G-d? All of this provides an indication that their death was not a simple mistake. Reconciling these two interpretations, the mystical sources explain the famous theme of the “run and return” of the soul.
Just like physically, there is a sprint from a stationary position towards a given target, “the run of the soul” is described as an intense yearning for something higher. This plays out in our lives in the quest for knowledge or personal growth. Sometimes it manifests as an intense drive, a burst of excitement, an inspiration to accomplish something great, or to quench one’s spiritual thirst.
Most of the time, this passion is submerged, drowned out by the emphasis and preoccupations with material concerns. Every once in a while the soul calls out and expresses some dissatisfaction with our standing so we throw her some food between the cracks of our busy schedule. For extraordinary people, however, who devote all their time and energy to studying the mystical secrets the “run” goes a step further.
It can be experienced with such a huge inspiration that the soul becomes overwhelmed and wants to break free of any hindrance- as with the story of Nadav and Avihu. For them the “run of the soul’ permeated their being to the extent that they became enveloped. Thus, drinking wine is often an idiom used for studying the secrets of the Torah. It takes a great mystic to perceive that level.
If so, what could possibly be greater? A kabbalastic concept called “the return.” The concept of return is a retreat from the excitement, a movement “downward’ from the passion. It is the ability to, after experiencing a great run, to control and direct that emotion- to make sure it lands in the right place. This separate power inside us enables the stabilization of one’s inspiration.
Thus, the additional dimension of the Ohr Hachaim illustrates the concept of a sin in holiness wherein one can operate based on feelings of holiness, connecting to G-d, yet it’s treated by the Torah as a flaw; notwithstanding their greatness in reaching such a high “run of the soul”, they did not engage the power of “return.” Consequently, the ultimate purpose of perfection within this world was not realized.
The broader message for us is both the “run and return” are necessary components: sometimes we become very inspired to save the world, to take on new projects, make all types of resolutions to refine our characters – and when it comes time to implementing that energy by performing the necessary actions we either forget, get distracted, or the excitement disappears. The rectification is to channel that inspiration into action so that the original emotion will live on.
From the other angle, one can be practicing Judaism but involved in the mechanics without any life and flavor. One can then make the mistake to think that since the ultimate goal is action- “so what if I have no fire, excitement?” But since “the run” is also an important ingredient, dry rituals are not sufficient. One must work to arouse the feelings, the voice of the soul that expresses itself in enthusiasm and inspiration