Every excellence has a shadow side. Every good quality we cultivate has, lurking in the background, a quality that is undesirable to which we are vulnerable. Think about it and you will see. Take for example happiness. Its great to be happy, an admirable state. Yet when one is happy one is vulnerable to being insensitive, particularly to others. In one's happiness s/he may struggle to see the hurt or anguish of a friend, riding over it in the enthusiasm of the moment. And even if the friend insists on making us aware of their struggle we may often minimize it and say "it will be okay". Or take passion, its good to be passionate about something, to care deeply.
And yet passion has a shadow side. In our enthusiasm we may miss the person in favor of the cause, or be blinded to the facts in favor of the ideal. Our passion may cause us tunnel vision.
Every virtue has a shadow side. To be unaware of the shadow is to be susceptible to its influence.
So I ask you, whats the shadow side of spirituality? When one is caught up in ruchniyut to what is s/he vulnerable?
The Gemara tells us a story that I think is revealing. The story is of Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai, according to tradition the source for the Zohar. Rebbe Shimon, was forced to flee from the Romans. He hid in a cave, there studying the secrets of the Torah. After six years he emerged from the cave full of the fire of the spirit. The Gemara tells us that when he looked around at the world from which he had been absent for so long he saw a man working his field. Rebbe Shimon gazed on him with such power that he burned him alive and turned him into a heap of bones. With that, Rebbe Shimon realized he was not ready for this world of mediocrity. He returned to the cave for an additional six years.
The shadow side of spirituality is intolerance! Have you ever noticed that when you daven a good davening, filled with kavana if someone makes noise or accidentally bumps you when you are standing in shemone esrai, your instinctual response is to become angry!
I bought for my grandchildren little story books of gedolim, great Rabbis, in English. One told of the incredible savlanut of a particular rebbe, how he never got angry. The people decided to test the Rebbe's patience so they sent a man to him to bother him for snuff several times during the davening. No matter how many times he came to ask, the Rebbe never got impatient or angry.
My son, asked me "whats the big deal about the Rebbe not getting angry. I know many people who have that kind of tolerance of others...and they are not Rebbes". What my son didn't realize is that the greatness of the Rebbe was evidenced not only by his behavior but by his circumstances. Where was he when he was bothered? In the middle of davening. Yes, many people might have a capacity for tolerance of being disturbed. But this was davening, the essence of spirituality. Here the Rebbe was most vulnerable to being intolerant and hard on another. Yet precisely here he remained calm and accepting.
You say to me, interesting, but why are you sharing this with us this week? I share it with you now because I think with the truths we have talked about we can unpack much of the deeper meaning in the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aaron, whose story is told in this week's Parsha.
Clearly Nadav and Avihu were tzadikim. The Torah tells us they were killed at the time of the dedication of the Mishkan for bringing an eish zara, a strange fire into the sanctuary. The Mahrsha says that the fire they brought was in fact appropriate. What they did was the right thing. Their sin was that they failed to consult with Moshe and Aaron before doing it. They brought the fire on there own. They died because, as the Gemara tells us, they ruled a halachic issue while in the presence of their teachers (Moshe and Aaron) an act of disrespect.
The Torah Temima is bothered by the Mahrsha's explanation. He asks, "if the fire was warranted why does the Torah refer to it as an eish zara?"
I believe the answer is embedded in what we have been discussing. Nadav and Avihu were filled with the spirituality of the moment. The immediate verses prior tell us that the people saw the presence of the Divine revealed in the sanctuary. In the height of that infusion with inspiration Nadav and Avihu saw something not right. An incense fire needed to be brought that Moshe and Aaron seemed oblivious to. They could not wait. In another place the Talmud says, Nadav and Avihu sinned saying "when will these two old men die (Moshe and Aaron) so we can assume the leadership". Little doubt that attitude would follow from their perception that Moshe and Aaron made a mistake in failing to bring the fire for the ketoret.
Nadav and Avihu in their heightened spiritual state became vulnerable to the shadow side of this excellence, that of becoming intolerant. They became intolerant of Moshe and Aaron. They saw themselves as more worthy to lead. They found it unacceptable to wait and ask their opinion about bringing the fire for the incense. They brought the fire on their own.
And why was the fire strange if it was in fact appropriate? The answer is because even that which is appropriate when done at a time or in a way not deemed proper becomes strange.
The shadow side, the intolerance, contaminated the spirit and made even that which was in fact the right thing to do come out lacking and deficient.
Can there be a more vital lesson for us to learn than this? So often as we become fused with the spirit and full of G-dliness we also find ourselves intolerant and critical of others we perceive as lacking. Yet that very intolerance, that shadow, in the end compromises our spirituality even as it did Nadav and Avihu. We are more like them than we may realize. And just as vulnerable!