In our parsha this week, Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9-11), we have one of the most famous episodes in all of Torah. Aaron, the High Priest and brother of Moses, has four sons, and two of them—Nadav and Avihu—priests in their own right—approach the altar and make an offer which G-d does not command. As a result of offering this strange or alien fire, as the Torah describes it, Nadav and Avihu die. Why, commentators ask, would death be the punishment for offering something that wasn’t commanded? Couldn’t one argue that their desire to offer sacrifice, to come close to G-d, is emblematic of their spiritual fervor and religious commitment, or commitment to sacred service? It feels like the punishment here not only doesn’t fit the crime but is way out of proportion to it.
Some commentators note that when you come too close to something, it can be dangerous, literally and figuratively. Put starkly, if you get too close to fire, as Nadav and Avihu did here, you will get burned. But beyond the obvious, there is much to be said for how easy it is to be burned out—pardoning the turn of phrase there—when we dedicate ourselves utterly and wholly to our work and don’t take time to care for ourselves in the ways we need to. Though there is much we might want to question about Nadav and Avihu’s treatment here, there is also much wisdom in the idea that we must find a way not to become so subsumed by our work, by our commitments, by always trying to do more, by never feeling like we’re doing enough and end up profoundly burned out emotionally, physically, psychologically and spiritually. May Nadav and Avihu’s story be a cautionary warning to us and remind us of the critical importance of taking time to tend to our own souls and nourish ourselves for the long hall.