How Nadav & Avihu teach us restraint

Parashat Acharei Mot begins by recalling the tragic deaths of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu: “The Eternal One spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Eternal.” [Lev 16:1]

Nadav and Avihu Abihu

Nadav and Avihu were apparently so overcome by the prospect of getting close to God that they rushed headlong into the Holy of Holies and were vaporized. Sounds like a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark….

The Holy of Holies was to be entered only on one day of the year, Yom Kippur, and only by one person, the high priest. Because they rushed in impulsively, they paid the ultimate price. Their intentions were good–they only wanted to get close to God–but they crossed a boundary and were vaporized. A very harsh consequence…

Parashat Acharei Mot also discusses the Yom Kippur service in the Temple in Jerusalem. During the service, two goats were brought into the Temple. A 50/50 lottery was held to determine which goat would be offered to God, and which goat – the scapegoat – would be sent off to the wilderness for Azazel, a demonic being who was said to reside in the wilderness. This is the origin of the word scapegoat. defines scapegoat as: 

  1. a person or group made to bear the blame for others or to suffer in their place.
  2. Biblical. goat let loose in the wilderness on Yom Kippur after the high priest symbolically laid the sins of the people on its head

The story of Nadav and Avihu teaches the value of restraint. The story of the scapegoat symbolizes the fact that our lives are comprised of countless moments where we are presented with a choice, a 50/50 lottery, what to choose in each given moment. Who we are is the aggregate of those countless decisions. 

The overarching lesson of this Torah portion is that self-control – making the right choices – is the foundation of being a good person, a holy person. If you harness your urges, you will have a better existence.

So many things that are good for us in moderation are bad for us in excess. Control your eating patterns, and you will be healthy and slim. Lose control, and you will suffer from diseases of excess. Sleep a sufficient amount, and you will feel energized. Sleep too much, and you will feel lethargic. Use medication as directed, and it can improve your health. Abuse it, and you can become addicted. Enjoy the sun, and feel rejuvenated while absorbing vitamin D. Absorb too much sun, and suffer burns or even sun poisoning. Live simply, within your means, and you will be financially stress free. Overspend, and descend into debt.

Are you familiar with the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment? This experiment consisted of 92 3-5 year old children who were left alone in a room with a piece of their favorite candy, and told that they could either eat the single piece of candy now, or wait 15 minutes and receive an entire bag of that type of candy. The children were then tracked for decades, and it was found that those who were able to delay gratification demonstrated higher achievement in a number of areas. They had better lives!

The Torah is full of laws that provide us with boundaries. Restraint can benefit us in so many ways. We spend our lives experiencing a series of moments where exercising restraint pays dividends.

The foundation of being a good person is the control of one’s desires. Life is a never-ending 50/50. Choose well, and live a holy life. 


And on this Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), just 5 days since the heartbreaking Poway synagogue shooting, I leave you with this:

Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention.So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally.The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.
L.R. Knost


Cantor Jacqui

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