No Martyrs No More

parshat Shmini (Leviticus 10)

Join Geoffrey Stern and Michael Posnik, recorded on Thursday March 24th 2022 on Clubhouse as we ask: Was the death of the two sons of Aaron a tragedy or the ultimate sanctification of God’s Name…. or both? We explore the concept of martyrdom in the Bible and Rabbinic texts and into modern times with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the creation of the State of Israel.

Sefaria source sheet:


Welcome to Madlik. My name is Geoffrey Stern and at madlik we light a spark with shed some light on a Jewish text or tradition. I host Madlik disruptive torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8pm. Eastern, and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. Today I ask was the death of the two sons of Aaron; a tragedy, or the ultimate sanctification of God’s name, or both? We’ll explore the concept of martyrdom in the Bible in rabbinic texts and into modern times. So keep your head low, and join me for No Martyrs No More


So Michael, I am so overjoyed that you are here with us. Because I think we're all going to benefit from your insight. This week's pasta is a tough one. We've spent weeks in Leviticus, with dry subjects about sacrifices, we've tried to make them relevant, and about a tabernacle and a temple as a holy place. But here is where the drama begins. This is a real tragedy that occurred. And I was surprised as one should be every year when one reads these texts, one needs to find something new. And when I mentioned to you a few minutes ago that we were going to discuss this, you said are we going to discuss the silence? Well, let me read the verses and I'm going to pick something slightly different. But we'll see in just a few words, how it's not only the silence, but what is said that is so haunting. So in Leviticus 10, 1-3 it says "Now Aaron, Sun Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it. And they offered before God, alien fire, which had not been commanded upon them, and fire came forth from God and consumed them. Thus they died at the instance of God. Then Moses said to Aaron, this is what God meant by saying through those near to me, I show myself holy and gain glory before all the people. And Aaron was silent." And I have always focused on the "Eish zar", the foreign flame, the fact that the sacrifice was not commanded. And of course, I've always focused on Aaron's response, but what I neglected to focus on and what I would love to discuss today is Moses his response. And Moses says, This is what we mean when we say "bekrovai ekadesh" , by those that are near me, I am made holy "ve'al pnai kol ha'am echabeid" And through all of the people, I will be given honor. We spent so much time Michael talking about what was the sin of Nadav and Avihu. And Moses, his response doesn't even indicate that they did anything wrong, Moses response to say, look, here's an example of how we can sanctify God. What could this possibly mean?


Michael Posnik  03:42

It's a that's the big question. What is strange fire? What did they think they were doing? What does it mean to offer a sacrifice without being commanded to offer a sacrifice? And finally come back to Aaron's question? What might he have said, had he not been struck dumb in some way? And then like you say, Moses doesn't even answer, doesn't even dwell on the question.


Geoffrey Stern  04:11

So let's look for a second at our old buddies, the traditional commentaries, because again, I have never focused on Moses response. But if you look at the traditional commentaries, like Rashi, Rashi says, And he quotes, the Midrash, Moses said to Aaron, this is what God meant by saying, so he's quoting somewhere else, like, Hey, this is a textbook case of something that we've heard before. And Rashi says, the verse that he's quoting, is there I will be met by the children of Israel in the tabernacle, and shall be sanctified by my glory. This is a verse in Exodus. So way back in Exodus, God is saying that one day I'm going to have a temple, it will be Sanctified by my glory. And the Midrash says read not by my glory Bechvodi, but read "b'michvodi"  with my honored ones. So, Moses said to Aaron my brother, Aaron, I knew that this house was going to be sanctified by those who are beloved of God. And I thought that it would be either through me or through you. Now I see that those; the sons are greater than me and then the end, they were the ones who made this house holy. So here we are, we believe we we have a tradition that despises rejects, human sacrifice, especially the most obvious form of human sacrifice, sacrificing one sons. And here we have Moses saying, You know what, I thought we; you and me, Aaron, we're going to have to make the ultimate sacrifice. And in fact, our children are greater than us. So Rashi doesn't shy away from this reading, to him, it's it's the most obvious it's a case of martyrdom, which is exactly what the subject of today's talk is. Because if we feel that martyrdom, and sacrifice in the sense of giving the best and the brightest and the best of ourselves, is abhorrent, we have to be able to confront it when it occurs. And maybe by reading this, we're struggling with the texts, but Moses was right in it. How else can you read Moses?



I don't know. I have a question for you. What does it mean sanctified by my honor? What is it? What does that mean to you? In plain, plain talk


Geoffrey Stern  06:59

in plain English, we talk all the time about something called a Kiddush Hashem. When you and I, Michael do something good when we help that old lady across the street, and we are wearing our kippah and our tzitzit are flying. Someone who sees us says, wow, is that must be a wonderful tradition that these guys are helping little old ladies across the street. And when God forbid, the opposite occurs. We talk about a Hillul Hashem, we are somebody who should be representing God. And by the way, one of the most beautiful interpretations I've ever heard of the concept of in the image of God, but Tzelem elohim is that we are all representatives of God. So when we human beings do something good. That's a Kiddush Hashem that honors God. And when we do something bad, it, it means it profanes God, and that's the typical modern-day translation and tradition. But what we are tapping in here to answer your question is Kiddush Hashem for many generations meant ultimately giving your life for God, which to us seems absurd and abhorrent. But we are going to explore texts today, where kiddush Hashem literally, the ultimate form means to sacrifice one's life. And that's something that I don't think we can be quiet. I don't think we have the luxury of Aaron, to be quiet. I think we need to speak up.



Yeah, thanks for the explanation of it. There's also a sense of that they were not commanded to do it. You know, so what are they? Are they trying to do more than the usual person are they trying to bring something strange or unacceptable to the Mikdash? How do you understand that?


Geoffrey Stern  09:21

So I think, you know, many of the traditional commentaries who focus on that are trying to find out what they did wrong to deserve being killed. And I think that's a very valid discussion. And the parameters go all the way from maybe they were drunk. Maybe there's this concept in the Talmud that says, It is more a value to do something that is commanded than something that is not commanded, which in a sense is counterintuitive. You know, when you asked me to pick you up from work, because it's raining and all that, and I do it that's one thing. But when I look outside the window and I see it's raining and I say I don't want Michael sitting out the rain and I'm waiting for you, you would think that someone who's lo mitzaveh is yoter then someone who is m'tzveh.   So the rabbi's discuss this, and ad nauseum. But again, what I'm intrigued by today is not to understand why this punishment happened to these two sons of Aaron, but to look at the traditional commentaries who don't stop with Rashi. They go to the Ibn Ezra to the Ramban, all of them are lined up and saying that these words, and one of the verse that are we to you shortly, is almost the source for this really, so foreign, and I would, I would almost say un Jewish concept of God wants us to sacrifice ourselves, or the highest form of sanctifying. God's name, is to give up one's life. And that, to me, is where I want to focus.



You see them as martyrs, as people are sacrificing their lives in the name of God B'shem Hashem.


Geoffrey Stern  11:34

Yeah. And so that's what verse 3 says, And Moses said to Aaron, and this is what God meant when he says, "Those near to me, make me holy", that these are my chosen, these are the apple of my eye "Bekrovei ekdesh: I won't be made holy by the punishment of my enemies, it's those that are close to me. And then it adds "ve'alpnei kol ha'am echabed' there are two elements hee... and it kind of gets back to tncept of the first fruits, and the choicest produce goes to God. And that's fine, I get that that's hidur mitzvah. But here we're saying, and we know where this comes from. This comes from what we thought, Judaism rebelled against. When months ago, we studied the binding of isaac Akedat Yitzchok. We explained that we Jews, for the most part refer to it as Akedat Yitzchak  becasue he wasn't sacrificed. He was just bound; it was just a test. And then we found that the Christians call it the sacrifice of Isaac. And in fact, they are even within our own tradition, in the Perkei d'rav Eliezer. It says that, actually, he was killed, and he was put back to life. And again, we say, if that's the case, how can we celebrate the Akeda? Again, it's a it's a story of a father sacrificing his sons, as Malach is, and we believe that Malach is exactly what we reject it. So what I'm what I'm struggling with what I'm what I'm wanting to explore today, is, how deep is this tradition? Is it staring us in the eye? And are we whitewashing it? Or is it and therefore, you know, like any other text until you recognize something, whether in your life, or whether in your holy texts, you can't really reject it until you see it first. And you and you see how it developed. And that to me is so fascinating here because it's  written exactly the way washy and the Ibanez was say it is that this is a source case, for God asking us to die al Kiddush Hashem, and that is how he is sanctified.


Michael Posnik  14:18

It's a pretty strong case.


Geoffrey Stern  14:20

It's a scary case.


Michael Posnik  14:22

And my mind keeps going back to what is meant by strange fire.


Geoffrey Stern  14:31

You You're still you're focused on a strange fire. And I think you're absolutely right, we can ignore that part of the story as we can't ignore Aaron being quiet. But I do think that to focus a second and what is said outright that Moses says "this is what is meant". So let me give you a little bit of a sense of how this worked out in in Jewish in Jewish history. So there's a tradition that there were 613 commandments. And as a result, there was a tradition of books written starting with Maimonides  on what those commandments are. And the Ninth Commandment, according to Maimonides, is that God commanded us to sanctify his name, said "Tzivanu l'kadesh et shmo". And he says, and where do we learn this from a little bit further in our book, Leviticus 22, where it says, and I shall be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel, very similar to our verse here. And it says that you are commanded to publicize our true faith in the world and in God, even at pain of being killed. But it says, but rather Maimonides rights, we must give ourselves over to dying and not deceive him to think that we have denied God, he be exalted in our hearts. And this is the commandment of sanctifying, God's name Mitzvot Kiddush Hashem and it was designated publication, this this concept here  to be Mefarsem , "Vyekashu et ashem brabim". And again, that came out of the second part of our verse where Moses said, I not only am I sanctified by those close to me, but then he goes on to say and gain glory before all the people that this is a show case. And it's a very, very troubling thought, if you go through Jewish history. So the question is, number one, what did it take for us to transition away from this? And what do we now need to see in some of the biblical texts that we never saw before? We call this Madlik Disruptive Torah. But this is certainly a disturbing, disruptive thought. And we can't hide from it.


Michael Posnik  17:08

Yes. Keep going, because this is all new material for me. And what is it? What does it really mean to sacrifice yourself for for God? Even if that's not your intention?


Geoffrey Stern  17:21

You know, I think and you would be the, the the authority on this. But in the Shakespearean tragedy, for instance, there too, you have this element of you know, from the beginning, something bad is going to happen. But it's a tragedy. I would say the heresy here. The heresy that Moses is speaking kivi'yachol, if you could say is that this is the sanctification of God's name.  not a tragedy. We're not Yes, yes. Yes. Yes. So here's an interesting thing. If you look up the Arab word for a motto, we all know it unfortunately, we all know it. It's a Shaheed so the word Shaheed comes from the same, Semitic source, as the Aramaic word for Sahadi, which means a witness. And in the Quran, the word Sahid is used predominantly as a witness, and it's only once used as a martyr. But again, I think what we learn from that is there's this element of somehow giving one's life for God. That means that one is giving witness to the power of God. That this is another nuance of not only are I sanctified by those close to me, the most precious, but by doing it in public somehow, it shows how great God is. And we can look at other nations such as Islam, and find that distasteful but it seems to be in our tradition too. This, this somehow, that sacrificing is something that can be turned into anything than it really is, which is a total desecration of life.


Michael Posnik  19:32

Right. A question comes up if you don't mind. What do you think the effect of Nadav and Avihu, what happened to them is on the people who are watching this,


Geoffrey Stern  19:47

So my gut reaction is fear. My gut reaction is and this again adds a nuance to our conversation is making God holy. We know there were many interpretations of what is holy. You know, one of the most simple interpretations is Kedoshim ti'hu, perushim ti'hu"  that which is holy is other than us. It's on a whole other level. And, you know, we moderns, we love to feel at home, in our synagogues, we love to feel at home with our rituals. And again, there's this whole other tradition, that this is something that is beyond our understanding beyond our power, and that we truly should be shitting in our pants, so to speak. And again, that's very distasteful to us. But I think there's definitely an element of Kodesh, you're standing on holy ground, step away from the mountain, so to speak. And we can't ignore that. I mean, if we're trying to be honest with how the language is used. So I mean, the truth is, in Jewish history, we we actually find instances where this Kiddush Hashem was taken to the very extreme that we see it, you ask, what was the takeaway from the two sons of Aaron, what did the people there? And what did history take from that? And I think that there was a very strong tradition, the Aleinu prayer, that we say at the end of services, traditionally, that was associated with martyrdom, and that was associated with a proclamation that my religion is the true religion, it is better than yours. There were instances where, during the Crusades, there were Jewish communities, who almost stood up. And in a spectacle, I took their own lives or gave themselves to martyrdom. It's hard again, for us to either comprehend, or to condone. But again, it's this very strong, I guess, urge, within a certain aspect of the, the religious mind, and maybe to make it more relevant to us, you know, how many times do we use religion and God to counter our own best interests and feel that somehow that is serving God? I mean, I think that's the real opportunity here, it gives us an opportunity to explore what the urges are, I mean, you know, I'm, I'm of the mind that, whether you believe in God or not, just as there is this instinct (capacity) for music and art that we can explain, we can't touch, but somehow there is a dimension of the human condition that has within it, the artistic feeling, and music, I think religion is the same. And so in a sense, we're all in this boat together, because we all have to address this desire to destroy in order to sanctify maybe that's the shortest way that I put it,


Michael Posnik  23:28

Say some more about that destroy in order to what is destroyed, in order for the sanctification to happen.


Geoffrey Stern  23:35

Well, well, in this case, and in the case of the sacrifice of Isaac, the concept was in order to prove one's fealty to anything, but in this case to God, one has to destroy what is the most precious to you? You know, I said in a previous episode, that the the Law that God is reading up in heaven when he was visited by Akiva was the law of the purification of the red heifer. And what really challenged God I believe, was that it's metaher et hatemayim umtamei et hatehorim. It purifies those who are impure, but it makes impure those who are pure. And it's this, this concept, that it's a zero sum game, that you somehow can't achieve holiness without losing something. And I think that's what I meant when I said, that you in order to sanctify, one needs to destroy and it's I'd like to think that it bothers God up in heaven and that's why he studied that text.


Michael Posnik  24:56

Geoffrey, what do we know about this in our lives? In your life in my life, what do we know about this? About destroying something in order to achieve a greater level of kedusha? What do we know about that?


Geoffrey Stern  25:14

When maybe the question is even bigger, you know, it's not so much a level of kedusha, but those of us who find ourselves sometimes being our worst enemy, our own worst enemy is the expression. And it's this sense of in order, in order to achieve something we have to break,  I don't know, but I think it's healthy to, to kind of confront it, to see that this was a very mainstream idea within our tradition. And if we reject it, like I think many did ...... there's a phrase within the ole knew, that talks that we have taken out of most of our ciders, but on the other hand has been retained. That talks about that we bow down to the truth, and you bow down meaning maybe Christians and Muslims to hevel and Rek sh'eyn Yoshia (to vanity and emptiness that doesn't save)  this, this competitive religion that's part of it also, in terms of doing it in public, so as to so that one, religion is better, I think maybe it's part of this zero sum game mentality. But what I'd like to do in the minutes that remain, is to my mind, to see how Jewish tradition has turned the corner and done it in a sense with eyes wide open. And in the source sheet, I bring the texts. I think that in Jewish history, the last time that martyrdom was discussed and given away was a combination between the Warsaw ghetto and the State of Israel, when Ben Gurion was very much against iconizing Masada. He thought that Masada was exactly the wrong message. Ben Gurion said not Masada and not Vishy. And by this he meant he did not want to get into a Masada type of struggle with the physical body of the nation could be destroyed in a desperate and hopeless battle. And, and when they went further, and he looked into the Masada story, he said that they actually killed themselves. And this is not what Israel is about. I mean, when we look at the Ukrainians to bring it home today, they're not looking to be martyrs. They're fighting for their land. On You know, the topic of the conversation today, I called No Martyrs No More, which was a play on "no war no more". Because there's a part of war where somehow, we feel we are sanctifying something and the truth is your sanctifying nothing. And that's not to say that there aren't things worth fighting for. And when necessary, there are things worth dying for. But I think that the modern state of Israel really was founded because they understood that there is no sanctification in Nadav and Abihu, and that, in a sense, they had to purge that in order to, to build something constructive. And I think that when I look at the Ukrainians today, and I'm so inspired, it's because they're finding within themselves something that they didn't even know existed, where they want to fight for their homeland, and they want to fight for freedom, but it's positive. And I just feel that we one of the takeaways that we need to have when we read these ancient texts, is to discover our own neurosis, so to speak, and by discovering it possibly be able to talk it through. And that's the discussion that I want to have. And I'm curious for your thoughts now that you've had half an hour to think about it. In literature in theater, does this also trigger any insight that you have


Michael Posnik  29:44

I'm thinking about a Tale of Two Cities that "It is a far far better thing I do", where he let himself be put to death force for the sake of somebody else? And I look at it also from a point of view of In order for us to achieve or come near or have access to the purest and most Tzelem Elohim of us, right? We have to sacrifice we have to get rid of stuff that's in the way. Every day we're trying to do that, it seems to me, we do have a sense that what's deep within us is pure, and good. And divine, if you will, or that Tzelem Elohim, the piece of that, that that each of us carries. It's not accessible to all to us all the time. It needs it needs to be, we have to see what's in the way. So and this may be related to what you're what you're speaking about, that something has to be removed in order for, if you will a producer to be revealed? Or the energy that was in the way has to be transformed into a greater energy, into a pure energy? That's what comes to my mind.


Geoffrey Stern  31:05

But it's a narrow path, it's it's very easy to make it perverse.


Michael Posnik  31:11



Geoffrey Stern  31:11

I think at the end of the day, when when Aaron is quiet at the end, you know, I understand his, his not being able to respond to that.... for obvious reasons, but I don't think that we can be quiet, I think that we need to, we need to call it out, we need to call out tyrants. Who are you know.  Putin is going through a whole different algorithm here. But there are enough Holy Wars out there and there are enough people who feel that you've got to, you know, break the eggs to make breakfast. And I think by identifying it, we can hopefully find it within ourselves and get rid of it and focus on the real holiness that you were discussing, where we remove the impure.


Michael Posnik  32:06

That's what friends are for. That's what study is for prayers for to help us see what's in the way to what I call what's in the way but you said to crack the shell that's actually keeping the egg from nourishing us.


Geoffrey Stern  32:22

Amen. Well, so butts alone. And I look I look forward to continuing this discussion. I think today was as much a struggle as it was a discussion, but maybe, but from every struggle comes hopefully something positive so Shabbat Shalom to you all, and we'll see you all next week.

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