Parashat Shemini is the twenty-sixth weekly portion in the Torah and the third in the Book of Leviticus (9:1-11:47). Chapters 9 and 10 tell the story of what happens “on the eighth day,” after the week of installation (described in the previous chapter) is complete; this is the only extended narrative in the entire book. Chapter 11 begins a new unit, that of ritual purity, which extends through the next two portions (up to and including Chapter 15).
Chapter 9 is exultant, as Aaron finally assumes his role as High Priest, along with his sons Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. However, Chapter 10 abruptly cuts short the joy of the day: “Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered foreign fire before the Lord, as He had not commanded them. So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.”
What exactly did Nadab and Abihu do wrong? What law did they violate? There have been many suggestions offered throughout the centuries, but the term “foreign fire” recalls the prohibition concerning the Incense Altar in Exodus 30:9: “You shall not offer foreign incense on it.”
The fact is that fire is a leitmotif in Parashat Shemini, appearing no less than–what else?–eight times in the story of the eighth day. At first, the fire is outside the camp, for the incineration of a special type of sin-offering. At the completion of the ceremony, Aaron blesses the people and a fire comes down from heaven to light up the altar, at the center of the camp. By then kindling their own fire, Nadab and Abihu defile the Tabernacle and defy God, for which they end up paying the ultimate price, as a divine fire comes forth to devour them. To set matters straight, Moshe stresses three times that the survivors, Aaron, Eleazar and Ithamar, must eat their portions from “the fires of the Lord.” Procedure must be followed, even in their bereavement. God’s Presence can be a force for God; but if His great power is not respected, the results can be catastrophic, as Moses later declares (Deuteronomy 4:24): “For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a zealous God.”
The portion from the Prophets begins in Chapter 6 of the Second Book of Samuel, telling the calamitous story of Uzza. King David seeks to bring the Ark of the Covenant from the house of Abinadab up to Jerusalem by wagon, but when Uzza (son of Abinadab) touches the Ark to keep it from falling, he immediately dies. This tragedy recalls the deaths of Nadab and Abihu. Moreover, Abinadab’s name echoes that of Aaron’s sons as he faces a bereavement much like Aaron’s.