Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, each took up his fire pan… and offered strange fire before the Lord, which God had not commanded them…
My friends and Rick and I covered a lot of ground during our recent brief trip to Israel, focusing on the Golan Heights and Jerusalem. Among our places of pilgrimage was David’s tomb, within the walls of the Old City. Like the burial places of other biblical, and even some rabbinic figures, David’s tomb is also a synagogue, complete with a mechitza, the barrier that separates men from women. When we visited, the pews were full of Orthodox Jews, praying individually and silently on both sides of the di-vide.
By this point in our travels – our final day – our group (three Jews, eight non-Jews) had seen ruins in Capernaum, the Old City and Masada. Two of my new friends re-spectfully asked: We understand that Jews do not and did not include graven images in synagogue architecture and décor, and that you have no intermediaries in the act of prayer. How is it, then, that the tombs of the patriarchs and matriarchs have become houses of worship? Are people worshipping them?
I responded that, when it comes to the prayers of our hearts and souls, it is human nature to seek any “in” we can. During the Amidah, our standing prayer, we invoke the names of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, and ask that their merit may influence God’s receipt of our prayers. So, too, many Jews choose to pray at the graves of the righteous – even those of the great sages buried in Israel – hoping that mere proximity to their bones might ensure that their petitions are heard.
I uttered no prayers at David’s tomb. Yet, like multitudes of other Jews, I did pour out the contents of my soul beside the stones of the Kotel, the Western Wall – both be-cause of, and despite the fact, that it is as close as one can get to the former site of the Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber of the Temple of old.
I do not hope for the rebuilding of the physical Temple, nor for the resumption of the sacrificial carnage of which we read in the Book of Vayikra. Yet, the purpose of those ancient offerings – coming closer to God – does resonate. Whether we struggle with faith or deny it, I think the urge is primal, within our heart of hearts, to want to believe that Someone hears us in our moments of need and despair.
Commentators tell us that Nadav and Avihu failed because their offering was vain and self-serving, and because they brazenly ignored the detailed instructions that were imparted to them as Kohanim. The Second Temple itself, our sages taught, was de-stroyed on account of sinat chinam, baseless hatred.
The destruction of the Temple was surely a horror and a desecration of the Divine Name. But in the aftermath, we learned that God is everywhere we are, that we might choose to connect with God anywhere, at any time. If it seems that our prayers are louder or somehow closer to heaven in the land of Israel, perhaps it is because we know that we stand on the sacred ground hallowed by the lives and bones of our an-cestors.
I hope that sometime next year, you and I can take that journey together.
With blessings for a meaningful Omer and a sweet Shavuot (which we will observe at Congregation B’nai Jacob on May 30th),
Rabbi Cheryl Rosenstein