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It's Not Chess Without the Rules

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

“And Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his pan, put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and they brought before the Lord foreign fire, which He had not commanded them. And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.” (Leviticus 10:1-2)

On the day that the tabernacle was erected, and God’s presence had descended, Aaron’s two sons Nadav and Avihu were inspired to bring incense offerings before God. Aaron’s children were seemingly performing an act of service of God. It is difficult to understand their fatal error.

Our Rabbis point out many different misgivings performed by Nadav and Avihu. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that their most fundamental error is clearly recorded in the text: “which He had not commanded them.” When we serve o-d in the way that we choose to serve God, our service is not an act of obedience, but rather an act of spiritual self-gratification. The role of the priests in public temple services is to show obedience as the nation’s representatives to serve God. The good of the nation and fostering obedience towards God is of primary importance. Just like our physical desires need to be harnessed, so too our spiritual inspiration has to be harnessed. True service is when we are serving God and not our personal physical or spiritual aspirations.

When we express our individuality within the framework of the rules and guidelines set aside by God, the divine presence descends and all is well. I once heard a great analogy with the game of chess. If your opponent does not adhere to the rules of the game, it is unpleasant and the game simply doesn’t work. When both players adhere to the rules, the game works and is challenging and stimulating. Although the game has very specific rules limiting the movement of various pieces in different ways, you very rarely see two games of chess played exactly the same way. Each player is able to express their individual expression within the rules of the game. The same is true with Judaism. The Torah rules structure the practice of Judaism, but within the framework of the rules there are infinite ways to express individuality. It’s not chess without the rules and it’s not Judaism without the Torah’s commandments.