Names: Two Brothers

Names: Two Brothers


Howard Adelman

What a coincidence! Or was it? Yesterday, one of my sons and I got into a discussion about names, largely on the context of using a name to impose one culture – usually that of an imperial power – on another culture. I, in part, defended the practice. For statistical collection of information, for identification on passports, the practice of everyone conforming to a common system seems imperative. But this does not mean that Western names should be “imposed” on others, only a Western system or any system of naming.

I also said that it was easier to remember more familiar names. Therefore, I was comfortable with the practice without endorsing coercion. I offered an example of my close friend and doctor, Joseph Wong. His full legal name is Joseph Yu Kai Wong. I only remember the Chinese names – Yu Kwai – when I check his email address, and then, because I am not sure I am correct, I double check on google. I do remember that it means “cheerful,” and that is very apt given his disposition. But his English name, Joseph, or Yosef in Hebrew, means YWHV, or Jehovah in Christian texts, shall add. And through Joseph, he certainly has. Joseph was the second chair of Operation Lifeline started in 1979 to promote private sponsorship of Indochinese refugees. Joseph  founded the Yee Hong Centre for Geriatric Care in 1987. He served as the chairman for the United Way from 1990 to 1992. He was named Man of the Year by the Toronto Star in 1986. He was awarded the Order of Canada in 1993. Former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev presented him with the Power of Humanity award in 2005. The recognition for his accomplishments could be multiplied many times.

Thus, contrary to my son’s memory, I was not unhappy when Polish authorities or Napoleon imposed a common system of last (family) and first names (personal), reifying a practice that developed between the 11th and 16th centuries in the West. I have always liked my last name – Adelman means “noble in spirit”. I though it was a glorious aspiration for myself and my brothers. However, I have always disliked my first name. “Howard” means castle guard. That is not a role I would like to play, even in the many metaphorical meanings that could be referenced. I would have preferred my Hebrew name, Chaim, which means life.

Names can and do have meaning. We read of what happened to the two sons of Aaron the High Priest and brother of Moses in three verses of the Torah portion read this past shabbat. After (or at the same time as, according to my daughter), 70 elders led by Moses, the High Priest Aaron and his two eldest sons who were also priests, saw God and shared a feast with Him as the Mishkan was being dedicated, opened and the initial sacrifices made in accord with God’s instructions, we read the following verses:

Lev 10:1 They took, sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, did, each man his firepan; they put in them fire; they placed on it incense; they brought near before the Presence of God, strange fire [esh zarah] that He did not command them. 1

0:2 And out came fire from the Presence of God [va-tetzei ‘esh mi-lifnei Adonai]; it consumed them [va-tokhal otam]; they died in the Presence of Adonai. (Lev. 10:1-2).

What was their sin: they were drunk; they brought their own profane fire; they were dishevelled – there are more interpretations. I think these three were all in effect. Nadab and Abihu brought their own alien unholy source of fire, esh zara, into the sanctuary. Instead of using fire in the way they were told, they introduced both creativity and imprudence. They played with fire and were consumed by it. They used the inner sanctum reserved for God to have a bacchanalian feast, at the time, interpreted as a feast to Baal rather than God.

The third verse follows:

The third verse follows. (ג) וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל אַהֲרֹן הוּא אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְקֹוָק לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ וְעַל פְּנֵי כָל הָעָם אֶכָּבֵד וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן:Did

…. “This is what the LORD meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.” And Aaron was silent. (Lev. 10:3)

Did God punish them for profaning God’s home and trespassing on God’s holy place contrary to an area in which God absolutely commanded everything; had they trespassed into the Holy of Holies where only the High Priest could go and then only on Yom Kippur? After all, they performed the incense service without authorization. Secondly, and very significantly, they acted together in a ritual that was reserved for only one priest. Was the punishment proportionate or was it just an untimely coincidence of heavenly fire consuming the unholy non-sacred earthly fire that they had introduced as perhaps their greatest sin? God had said in Leviticus 9:24 that, “I will not accept your man-based, fleshly attempt to imitate My fire; I will bring judgment.”

Did Moses mourn for his two nephews who had died, or did he, as the text seems to make clear, really coldly imply, “It served them right”? And why was Aaron silent; his two eldest of his four sons had just died. Or is it the case, as my daughter suggests in her Dvar Torah, “In the face of such an accident, there is only muteness.”

But what followed? Moses ordered that the bodies be shrouded in their tunics but remain untouched. But I thought and read that they had been consumed by fire. How then could the bodies still have tunics on them? But the meaning was clear: what was holy was not to be defiled again. The bodies were to be dispatched immediately to cleanse the sanctuary as soon as possible, and not by any priests, but by relatives of the deceased. There was to be no shiva, no mourning by the family or elders, no rending of clothes. Punishment was to continue after their death. There was to be an absolute separation between what was holy and what was unholy, what was clean and what was unclean, what was good and what was evil. No midground was to be permitted, certainly not on God’s turf.

I suggest the meaning of the names of Aaron’s two oldest sons who were consumed by fire, Nadab and Abihu, may provide clues to the underlying theme of this horrendous tale. Did God punish them for demonstrating independence of God’s divine commands? Nadab (נָדָב) means generous, and, also, free or voluntary. As discussed in Torah study, the core verb נהה  (naha) means to wail or lament and is an onomatopoeic word. Did Nadab cry out against the tight regime and restrictions that ruled his life? Abihu (אֲבִיהוּא), means father (אֲבִי) who he is (הוּא) or he is my father. How do these names connect with an action considered so egregious, so thoughtless, careless, so marked by presumptuousness and irreverence, and an action determined to be a great sin for which the wager was death?

What was the sin of the two brothers – arrogance. ambition, impatience, thrill seeking? Or was their failure one of breaking away from a regime that required a total abiding relationship with God? They were both rebels against the demands of purity and not merely ceremonial impropriety. Glory to God on high! One was generous and a free spirit who likely protested against his confined role and groaned and growled in opposition. However, the other was reverent for he respected both Aaron and God as his father, but on this occasion joined with his brother in committing an unholy act. How did one respectful of tradition act in concert with his free-spirited brother? How did the second reverent son get caught up in the actions of an alpha male determined to demonstrate his own independence? Cain and Abel were opposites. So were Esau and Jacob. But they never acted in concert. Moses and Aaron did, Nadab and Abihu also did, but with a radically different intent.

I suggest that is the underlying theme. When two brothers who are radically different in their personalities act together in rebellion against an authoritarian puritanical command system, this is the greatest danger to the system. After all, absolute power operates by sewing or magnifying differences. When these two brothers stood together in irreverence towards both their father and their uncle, also two very different men, who had also partnered but for the purpose of serving God, they posed the greatest danger to that authoritarian system. To maintain that system meant sacrificing even your own children – who most believe took the rebellion too far. They played with fire and were consumed by it. But if they had not taken the risk – and the consequences – would we still be living under an intolerant authoritarian system?


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