Sons of Aaron Vs. Rabbi Akiva - שמיני

Friday, 5 April, 2024 - 3:31 pm


Sons of Aaron Vs. Rabbi Akiva 

It was one of the happiest days in Jewish history. After many months of construction and seven days of inauguration, the cloud rested on the tabernacle on the eighth day, symbolizing the Divine presence resting amidst the Jewish people.

It was also a day when tragedy struck. As the Torah relates: 

And Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his pan, put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and they brought before the Lord foreign fire, which He had not commanded them. And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. (Leviticus 10:1-2)

Drawing too close to G-d, what the kabbalah calls "running", can be dangerous. 

The Talmud relates that four great Talmudic sages "entered the orchard", a metaphor for delving into the most mystical secrets of the Torah, only one of them emerged safely:  

Four entered the orchard: Ben Azzai peeked and was hurt… Ben Zoma peeked and died… Aḥer peeked and cut saplings {became a heretic}… Rabbi Akiva entered in peace and left in peace. (Jerusalem Talmud, Chagigah 2b)

What was Rabbi Akiva's secret to not only "run", to experience the intense desire and yearning to cleave to G-d, but also to "return", to turn back to earth to sanctify the mundane experiences of life? 

Regarding the other rabbis, the Talmud tells us only how they emerged from the "orchard"; yet regarding Rabbi Akiva, the Talmud adds a detail that sheds light on how Rabbi Akiva succeeded where the others failed. Rabbi Akiva not only "emerged in peace" but also "entered in peace". Rabbi Akiva's attitude and motivation to "running" was not his own personal desire to connect, which would make it difficult to "return" to a healthy life, but rather it was motivated by a devotion to the will of G-d, which is to create "peace" and bridge the gap between heaven and earth. 

It would be a mistake to assume that the lesson of the story of the sons of Aaron is that we should not seek to "run" - that we should not cultivate the yearning and desire to transcend and escape the mundane. Instead, the message is that" running" must not be motivated by one's personal desire, for then the person can become self-centered and disconnected from family, friends, and the task of impacting the world. Instead, the story of the sons of Aaron teaches us that the yearning for transcendence must be for the sake of fulfilling the will of G-d. The yearning must be predicated upon, and therefore consistent with, the Divine desire that we "run" and "return", that we enter the orchard in peace in order to emerge in peace. 

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