Actively Passive (Acharei Mot)
To make oneself an object, to make oneself passive, is a very different thing from being a passive object. -Simone de Beauvoir
According to both biblical and Midrashic sources, Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron the High Priest, were great men. In some respect, they were even considered greater than Moses and Aaron, which makes it even more perplexing how such prestigious and religiously accomplished individuals could deserve such a dramatic divine punishment. How was it that a divine fire killed these two great men on the very day of the consecration of the Tabernacle?
The Chidushei HaRim on Leviticus 16:3 states that while Nadav and Avihu were clearly great men and purely motivated, they made a critical mistake. They showed initiative at the wrong time. Furthermore, the demonstration of initiative in the wrong instance indicates a dangerous understanding of man’s role in God’s world.
It demonstrated a belief that they controlled the world to an extent, that they were the masters of the outcome of events, that the strength of their hand would shape reality. The Chidushei HaRim explains at length that such belief is a fallacy and misunderstands God’s active role in the world.
He highlights the underlying premise that God is in complete control of everything. A grain of sand does not move unless God allows it. God gives us free will and the ability to exercise it. He will rarely intervene in our actions in a direct or obvious way, but He is the ultimate enabler of everything that occurs in the world. We have an obligation to follow His commands and to use our free will to do what God asks. However, when we use our abilities and initiative to do something God hasn’t commanded, it presumes a certain arrogance and belief that we can determine what should and will happen in the world.
When those instincts of wanting to act when we aren’t supposed to come to the fore, we need to consciously refrain from pursuing those actions. We need to actively be passive. That is what Moses tells the Jews when they stood at the Sea with the Egyptian army poised to attack them: “God will fight for you, and you stay still.”
There are times for action, there are times for initiative, but perhaps no less important, there are times not to take the initiative, not to react, not to presume that we are the masters of what occurs, but rather to remember that God is the ultimate conductor. Ironically, once we internalize that we’re not the ones in control, it enables greater autonomy in God’s world. Once we realize that God is ultimately in control, it gives us a greater ability and license to correctly exercise our free will.
May we realize what things we can and should get involved in, and in which things we shouldn’t.
Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,
To Israeli astronaut Eytan Stibbe. Wishing him and the rest of the Dragon Endeavour crew a safe return.