Nadav and Avihu! Turn off your phones

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This week’s Torah portion is Shemini, Leviticus 9:1–11:47.

On Sunday evenings at religious school, I often feel like the cell phone police. From 6 to 8 p.m. I ask my students to turn their phones off (or, better yet, leave them at home). It’s often a challenge.


“But it’s hafsakah [break]. Why can’t I use it during break?”

“Because,” I explain, “you are sitting in a roomful of your friends eating pizza. Talk to them. Don’t just sit next to them!”

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But, I get it. Because I am among many adults who model this behavior.

We live during a time when we are lauded for accomplishing multiple things at once. We peruse Facebook while riding the Metro to work. We catch up on a missed calls while out for a run. We respond to last night’s emails while watching our children’s baseball games. We eat dinner in the car as we shuttle the carpool from one extracurricular to the next.


These examples are new in our time, but the problem is as old as the Torah.

In this week’s Torah portion, Shemini, we encounter the tragic loss of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu. As they stood in the Tent of Meeting “… they offered before Adonai alien fire, which God had not commanded them. And fire came forth from Adonai and consumed them…” (Lev. 10:1-2).

Although our text does not explicitly state why God was angry enough to end their lives, we learn in a midrash that Rav Simeon taught that Aaron’s sons died because they entered the Tent of Meeting drunk with wine (Lev. Rabbah 12:1). Rav Simeon drew this conclusion because of the proximity of the verses describing their death to the following verses:

“And Adonai spoke to Aaron, saying: Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of meeting, that you may not die. This is a law for all time throughout the ages, for you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane …”

Following this line of thinking, we can see just how detrimental the outcome can be when we cease committing ourselves fully to our work, our spirituality, and our play — all sacred tasks — and instead mix them up with the profane.

We know that Judaism does not frown upon alcohol in many contexts, but in the Tent of Meeting, in the holiest place for the Israelites, there was an expectation that you would be completely focused and engaged in the holy tasks at hand. Doing anything to detract from that sacred work brought with it a death sentence.

It is so hard, but what a difference it might make if we really tried to dedicate ourselves solely to the task at hand. To not just put the phone on vibrate, but to completely turn it off now and then. Imagine what we might see around us as we jogged through the park looking at the cherry blossoms in bloom instead of trying to catch up on that call, or actually seeing the homerun scored instead of having to guiltily cover up the fact that we were distracted when it happened.

All of these moments are imbued with the potential for holiness — the holiness of beauty, of life-affirming achievements, of interactions with friends and family.

Our text offers a warning: that we must engage with the sacred with the wholeness of ourselves, because failure to do so can have severe costs. But the rewards of engaging fully in sacred moments can be far greater than we can imagine.

Questions for discussion:

Nadav and Avihu distracted themselves from the task at hand. What are some of the distractions in your life? What have been some of the outcomes of allowing yourself to be distracted by them?

What are the moments in your week that have potential for holiness that you want to be able to dedicate yourself to more fully?

What is one change you can make (feel free to start small!) that will allow you to be more present in a given situation?

Rachel Ackerman is rabbi-educator at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase.

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