By Joel Stern, April 15, 2023
Who here has ever led a seder?
Think for a moment — Do you feel you did it right?
A seder is a religious service. And in our parasha today we read about two young priests who definitely did not get the service right. Of course I’m referring to Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron. For them, the consequences of not getting it right were, to put it mildly, severe.
Let’s take a look at the passage – Leviticus Chapter 10 verses 1-2:
וַיִּקְח֣וּ בְנֵֽי־אַ֠הֲרֹ֠ן נָדָ֨ב וַאֲבִיה֜וּא אִ֣ישׁ מַחְתָּת֗וֹ וַיִּתְּנ֤וּ בָהֵן֙ אֵ֔שׁ וַיָּשִׂ֥ימוּ עָלֶ֖יהָ קְטֹ֑רֶת וַיַּקְרִ֜יבוּ לִפְנֵ֤י יְהֹוָה֙ אֵ֣שׁ זָרָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֧ר לֹ֦א צִוָּ֖ה אֹתָֽם׃
Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before יהוה alien fire, which had not been enjoined upon them.
וַתֵּ֥צֵא אֵ֛שׁ מִלִּפְנֵ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה וַתֹּ֣אכַל אוֹתָ֑ם וַיָּמֻ֖תוּ לִפְנֵ֥י יְהֹוָֽה׃
And fire came forth from יהוה and consumed them; thus they died before יהוה.
They were, quite literally, fired from their jobs.
As you can imagine, the rabbis struggle with the terrible punishment, and offer many different explanations for it. Here are some of them:
Interpreting their behavior negatively, you have these opinions:
Rabbi Eliezer: THEY DIDN’T RESPECT MOSES’ AUTHORITY
They died only because they taught a halakha before Moses their teacher; they should have asked him for his ruling, but they neglected to do so.
Rashi: THEY WERE DRUNK.
Quoting Rabbi Ishmael: They died because they entered the Sanctuary intoxicated by wine. You may know that this is so, because after their death he admonished those who survived that they should not enter when intoxicated by wine.
And on the positive side you have these opinions:
Ibn Ezra: THEY ACTUALLY THOUGHT THEY WERE DOING IT RIGHT.
They thought that they were doing something favorable before Him.
Chizkuni: THE FIRE HAD A MIND OF ITS OWN.
The heavenly fire originated in heaven. It traveled first to the Holy of Holies and from there to the golden altar in the Sanctuary, and there to consume the incense offered. In this instance, the heavenly fire did not stop there, but travelled beyond the boundary of the Sanctuary to the copper altar in front of the Sanctuary and consumed these two sons of Aaron there.
No matter the explanation for this tragedy, one thing is clear — anyone who hopes to serve as a sacred channel between the community and God has an important responsibility.
When it comes to leading a religious service, there are so many elements that contribute to “doing it right.” Of course, it’s subjective. One congregant’s spiritual experience is enhanced when the Chazzan davens, while another congregant is thrilled when invited to sing along. A bar mitzvah boy’s off-key singing will upset those with sensitive ears, but many are moved by his earnest efforts and sincerity.
Despite the subjectivity, there are those who have tried to describe objectively how to do it right, as well as how not to do it.
In 1965, Cantor Walter Orenstein of Yeshiva University compiled a book called the Cantor’s Manual of Halakhah, which contains a chapter called “Who is Fit to Stand before the Ark.” Here are some of the qualities he lists:
- One should be free of sin, and with a reputation that has not been defamed.
- One should be modest, with a pleasant disposition and a sweet voice. Where one not suitable is allowed to serve in merit of a pleasant voice alone, the Kadosh Baruch Hu does not accept the prayers.
- One should wear clean, full length clothing, be the first to enter the synagogue and the last to leave.
- If there is a choice between an ignorant elderly person who has a pleasant voice and is desired by the people, and a young person of but 13 who comprehends the words but whose voice is not pleasant, the young person is preferable.
- One who mispronounces the words should not be elected Shaliach Tzibbur.
- And note this: One who unduly prolongs the service puts an excessive burden upon the congregation.
In all these cases, a Shaliach Tzibbur who doesn’t measure up is simply not invited back or dismissed, a much less severe fate than what befell Nadav and Avihu.
I was fortunate to grow up in a Conservative shul in Omaha with a master Chazzan, Aaron Edgar, z”l, who was trained by the great cantors of Europe. He would chant, actually pray, every single T’filah with intensity and devotion, but also with profound humility. At a dinner honoring him for his many years of service to the shul, a tribute was sung to him to the tune of “Az Di Rebbe Lacht.” The words they used were:
When Cantor Edgar prays (2x)
Everybody feels holy
When Cantor Edgar prays (2x)
Everybody feels holy
I was also privileged to study chazzanut with Cantor William Sharlin, z”l, of Leo Baeck Temple, who founded the Department of Sacred Music at HUC and led it for many years. One of his colleagues noted in a tribute to him that, despite the fact that in his Reform synagogue he faced the congregation, spiritually he always faced the ark, as in a traditional synagogue. When Cantor Sharlin would start to sing, within seconds you felt enveloped within a holy space. My teacher imparted to me many things, but the most important was about leading a service: I myself must be moved spiritually, in order for the congregration to have a spiritual experience.
When a Chazzan gets it right – everybody feels holy!
As for me… Every time I step up to the bimah to lead davening, I want to honor the congregation—and my teachers—by leaving the mundane behind and reaching a spiritual place. But also, as we learn from the story of Nadav and Avihu, it’s not only one’s intentions that are important; one also needs to pay attention to the details. I personally am not worried about being zapped by a divine fire (unless we’re holding services on Ziering field during a lightning storm), but I do worry about the following:
- Will my vocal cords hold up through the whole service?
- Which melody will I use for “El Adon”?
- If we’re running behind, what parts should I “turbo-cantor” through in order to end on time?
And, if one is totally honest, one must also acknowledge that a cantor is also a performer. And with that acknowledgement there arises the occasional fantasy of belting out something like this on Erev Yom Kippur:
Start fillin’ the pews
I’m singin’ today
You’re gonna hear a lot of me
It’s Kol Nidre
😊 It’s also important that we not take ourselves too seriously.
I began this drash with a question: “When you led your seder, did you do it right?”
Well, let’s see…
Did you try to perform the rituals properly? Did you feel you were involved in something important and holy? Were you and your fellow seder celebrants uplifted? Were there serious moments, as well as moments of lightness?
If you answered “Yes” to these questions, then YES, you did it right.