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5769 - #25

NADAV, AVIHU, UZZAH AND DOVID

          Chief Rabbi Dr. J.H. Hertz, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, Introduction to Haftorah Shemini explains that the sedrah and haftorah are connected for the former “describes the consecration of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness” while the latter “tells of the transportation of the Ark of the Covenant” specifically to Yerushalayim. Most significantly, both events are also marred by tragic events: the death of Nadav and Avihu on this day on which the kohanim began their service in the Mishkan1 and the death of Uzzah during the initial transportation of the aron from Baalei-Yehudah.2 Rabbi Hertz continues that these two tragedies are further connected for they both carry the same message. “The death of Nadab and Abihu in the Sedrah is a warning that no kind of caprice can be tolerated in the service of God. The same lesson is enforced in the Haftorah by the death of Uzzah, who was guilty of irreverence towards God’s majesty”. Interestingly, Rabbi Hertz, in his comments to Shmuel II 6:8, also points out a distinction between the two events. “Unlike Aaron, who submitted to God’s will in silence, David resented the judgment which God had inflicted, and in a petulant spirit abandoned the enterprise.” This difference in response between these two great personalities of Torah, though, may actually imply a greater distinction between these two events than first assumed.

            .Malbim, Shmuel II 6:8,9 defines Dovid’s reaction in a different manner than Rabbi Hertz. Malbim argues that the verse is informing us of Dovid’s anger with himself for not being sufficiently concerned with the honour of the aron. In other words, Dovid blamed himself for the death of Uzzah. Dovid, subsequently, did somewhat abandon his project of bringing the aron to Yerushalayim but not because, as Rabbi Hertz maintains, of a petulant spirit but rather because he furthermore now felt himself unworthy to continue the project. The words of Malbim are most revealing. Dovid, Malbim maintains, always served God m’ahava u’m’simcha, with love and from joy. Now that he was filled with fear of the punishment that befell Uzzah, Dovid felt overtaken by the motivation to serve God solely from fear of punishment, a standard of a much lower level than the desire to serve from love and joy. The result was that Dovid, feeling this slippage in his level of service of God, questioned his ability/right to escort the aron to his city. Dovid, according to this view, it would seem, lost his spirit, his religious fervour, and so, he felt unworthy to serve God. What is especially strange about this perspective is that there are many views that contend that Nadav and Avihu also met their fate because they acted out of religious fervour.3 The story of Nadav and Avihu can be understood as standing for order and restraint over fervour in the service of God. The story of Uzzah would now seem to stand for the opposite.

            There is actually a major debate regarding the reason for the fate that met Nadav and Avihu. One view, which would seem to be the one adopted by Rabbi Hertz, is that they were punished for their carelessness in the service of God. This would also seem to be the basis for why Uzzah was punished.4 Within this context, the stories simply stand for the importance of care and structure in the service of God. There is another view, though, that adds another dimension to the story. Nadav and Avihu met their fate not because they carelessly ignored the structure of the Torah system but because they were overtaken by their religious fervour and, subsequently, did not abide by this structure. In a certain way, this perspective could also be applied to Uzzah. He acted instinctively to protect the aron, also without disciplined consideration of the greater system and the miraculous nature of the aron that actually carried itself and those who seemed to carry it. According to this view, the two stories are furthermore about the tension between passion and structure, with the lesson seeming to favour the latter. Malbim’s perspective, though, seems to present a counter-argument in that Dovid’s response to Uzzah’s death actually would seem to reflect a teaching of the superiority of passion over structure. The continuation of the story with Dovid’s unrestrained celebration when he escorted the aron in Yerushalayim clearly would further seem to support this view of the superiority of religious fervour.

            Micha’s critique of Dovid's behaviour cannot be seen as personal. Having been from the House of Shaul Hamelech, she knew the responsibilities that came with being a member of the royal family of Israel and the honour, not only due to a king but upon which the king must be most protective. In her eyes, Dovid was violating the structure of Torah in allowing his religious fervour to overcome him in his celebration of the aron entering Yerushalayim. The deaths of Nadav and Avihu and the death of Uzzah would seem to support her view. Even Dovid, according to the Malbim, took responsibility for the death of Uzzah and for not properly transporting the aron. Yet, Dovid also felt something else in the process of responding to the lesson from Uzzah’s death. The alternative of totally foregoing religious fervour, of allowing structure to destroy passion, also cannot be an acceptable alternative. That would lead to individuals just serving God out of fear, without the expression of self, without passion, solely within the confines of the enclosed parameters of structure. This was perhaps Dovid’s true dilemma in pausing on this journey of the aron to Yerushalayim. Structure must be the backbone of Torah. This is the clear lesson of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu and of Uzzah. Yet, this structure cannot destroy the spirit of the individual, one’s passion and fervour. Dovid Hamelech had to pause to consider, before bringing the aron into Yerushalayim, how to combine the two.

            The verses that describe Dovid’s response to Micha are, perhaps, cryptic. They don’t really answer her charge that his behaviour was inappropriate for a king of Israel. His response was that Micha, basically, should have trusted him (and, even, perhaps, have doubted herself). The fact is that the balancing of structure and fervour is a personal matter; every situation is different. In addition, evaluating this balance is also not the province of every individual, even of most individuals. The vast majority of people do not have the ability to attempt this balancing and so structure must generally be solely dominant. Yet, Dovid knew who he was – and expected his wife to know this as well. He understood before leading the aron into Yerushalayim, that he had to trust in himself – and that within Torah, while an individual may not be able to do so at this moment, one must recognize and set this as a disciplined goal of Torah in one’s future.

            Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

 


Footnotes

1 Vayikra 10:1,2.

2 Shmuel II 6:6,7.

3 See, Nechama Leibowitz, Studies in Vayikra, Shemini 2: The tragedy of Nadav and Abihu.  

4 There is a general attitude amongst the commentators that Uzzah’s mistake, in attempting to respond to his perception that the aron could fall over, was a reflection of his lack of faith.

5 Shmuel II 6:20. 2.

6 See, further, Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim, chapter 2:1,3.

 

(c) Nishma, 2009


 


 


 


 


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