In the Torah portion this week there is a very short but remarkable incident involving two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, who brought a “strange fire” as an offering in front of the Tent of Meeting, and were immediately consumed by a fire sent by God. Commentators throughout the centuries have tried to reconcile the seemingly innocent action on their part with the ferocious response by God. For me, the clue lies with a verse that shortly follows, which appears to be an injunction against going into the holy space drunk:(Lev.10:10) for you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane.
Rather than concentrate on the particular punishment meted out, I believe it is more instructive to look deeper at the value being promoted. We are cautioned to learn the difference between sacred and profane, or in ordinary terms, right and wrong.
Often in our lives we interpret issues facing us mostly in shades of grey. In trying to understand them we investigate their nuances, looking at them from multiple angles, with compassion and kindness. But what this verse is teaching is that there is a point where grey moves into black or white, that the qualities of good or bad, right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate should be named. We should not hesitate to name things as such due to our hesitation to impose our personal values on others.
I believe this verse is teaching us that the world is diminished when we allow profanity to flourish. I’m not talking about “bad words”, but evil actions. As the entire Torah points to that which is good and that which is not, so must we, as moral agents in our world.