Monday, September 15, 2014

Commentators Clash Over An Ambiguous Phrase

*"אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי"

The phrase “Arami Oved Avi” – appearing at the beginning of this week's parsha, Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:5)– sounds familiar to us. It is part of the declaration that the farmer makes when handing the bikkurim, the basket of first fruits  which he or she brings to the priest at the Temple in Jerusalem. But we know it mainly because it’s part of a famous passage from the Passover Haggadah:

Go and learn what Laban the Aramean sought to do to Jacob our father. For whereas Pharaoh only decreed the death of the males, Laban sought to exterminate them all, as it is written ‘Arami Oved Avi’ - An Aramean tried to destroy my father.

We are biased. Our interpretation is biased because we usually remember only the Haggadah’s midrashic explanation  - “An Aramean tried to destroy my father.”

Indeed, the widespread acceptance of this translation stems from the fact that Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitchaki), the great 11th century French commentator, cited this interpretation from the Midrash (Sifre on Devarim).  

According to this interpretation, the grammatical structure is:

Arami [Laban] oved [sought to destroy] avi [Jacob]

where Arami (Laban) is the subject, avi – my father, the direct object, and oved, the transitive verb –destroyed. However, this explanation is subject to criticism from other commentators who find many difficulties with this interpretation. Does the verb "oved" actually mean "seek to destroy something"? And how is Laban connected to Yaakov’s going down to Egypt? 

Only two generations later, Rashi's own grandson,Rashbam, provides us with a completely different take on those 3 Hebrew words. Rashbam says that this phrase means,

“My father Avraham was an Aramean lost and exiled from his birthplace, Aram.”

​​In other words, the grammatical structure is very different: 

Arami oved [a wandering Aramean] was my avi [Abraham]. 

To support his position, Rashbam quotes the verses – at the beginning of Lech Lecha - where God tells Abraham to go forth from his homeland.  In addition, he cites Abraham's own description of himself as a "wandering Jew." In the dialogue with Avimelech, the king of the Philistines, Abraham mentions:

And when God had me wander from my father's household, I said to her, 'This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, "He is my brother.”   (Genesis 20:13)

In this interpretation, the root – a-v-d (א.ב.ד)–is an intransitive verb, meaning of “being lost.” Rashbam points out another verse in Psalms which has the meaning of “to be lost.” As any Hebrew speaker will tell you, it is also very much the sense of the word in modern Hebrew today, e.g. Ha-cellulari sheli avad (my cellphone got lost)!  

Ibn Ezra, the great 12th century Spanish commentator and linguist, also weighs in against Rashi’s interpretation. He observes that the form oved is intransitive, and does not appear in the causative or transitive form one would expect to use if the meaning were “to destroy something.” If that were the case, that Laban is seeking to destroy Jacob,  the verb should have been ma’avid or me’abed.  For grammar lovers, these are different conjugations, binyanim, of the same Hebrew root: oved  is the Kal form, ma’avid is Hiphil form, and me’abed is Piel form. The Torah’s use of oved points to an intransitive form of the verb, without any direct object.

Ibn Ezra’s other argument is rather persuasive:

What is the point of saying that Laban sought to destroy my father and he went down to Egypt when Laban had nothing to do with his going down to Egypt!

He therefore suggests another explanation with oved as an intransitive verb and avi as the subject. Under this explanation, the phrase would read as follows:

Avi [Jacob] was an Arami oved,

as if the text read: “When my father was in Aram he was ready to perish” i.e. poor and penniless.

According to Ibn Ezra, this fits into the theme of the entire declaration as follows:

I did not inherit this land from my father because he [Jacob] was poor when he came to Aram; he was too a sojourner in Egypt and was few in number. Afterwards, he became a great nation and you, God, brought us out of slavery gave us this goodly land.

Thus, Rashbam and Ibn Ezra agree on the grammatical structure of the verse, but they differ in the identity of “avi” – Ibn Ezra says it refers to Jacob, whereas Rashbam says it refers to Abraham.

Rushing to defend Rashi is the Maharal of Prague, the great 16th century scholar from Prague. As Nehama Leibowitz points out, the Maharal, in his super-commentary on Rashi, Gur Aryeh, answers Ibn Ezra’s attack on Rashi which– as mentioned above - was that it's not Laban who caused Jacob to go down to Egypt. The text, says the Maharal, is merely articulating in chronological order the misfortunes suffered by Jacob:

As first, it was Laban who was Jacob’s inveterate destroyer till God saved him, and then he went down to Egypt to suffer once more, till God again redeemed him from death.

Another commentator who answers Ibn Ezra’s attack on Rashi is the Abarbanel. He posits that Laban’s evil ways caused Jacob’s sons to feud, eventually leading to the selling of Joseph to Egypt, and the entire family going into exile in Egypt. Blaming Laban for the almost-deadly feuding between Jacob’s sons is somewhat of a stretch, and we leave to the reader whether this is a plausible explanation or a form of scapegoating.

Next we come to Seforno, the 16th century Italian commentator, who follows in the footsteps of Ibn Ezra:   
Yaakov, who was for a while a wandering lost person without a home of his own, was not at the time able to establish a nation  deserving or fit to inherit this land.

It is interesting to note Or Hachaim on these words. As part of his long commentary on this verse, he explains the word “avi” as referring to Adam, or Adam HaRishon, the Adam of Genesis! As befitting a kabbalist, he takes us on a long excursion into mystical dimensions, and sees in this verse a reference to “spiritual poverty” but that would be a digression from our discussion.

Let us ponder why we have this passage in our Haggadah. The late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik saw this aspect of hakarat hatov, being thankful, in both the declaration for the bikkurim and the  recitation during the Passover Seder. It is a unifying aspect between the two rituals.

It seems the Haggadah strayed from the peshat, the simple, literal meaning of the text, because it had an agenda. Undoubtedly, one of the Haggadah’s main goals was to lift up the spirits of the Jewish people after the exile by the Romans, and to tell us that Hashem will redeem us, as He did when we were in Egypt. Furthermore, Rabbi Yehuda Nachshoni, in his collection of commentaries, takes the Hebrew letters of “Arami” and turns them (with a basic transposition of letters and new vowels)  into “Roma'i,” or Roman,  as a hint to the people that even though Rome had destroyed the Second Temple, Hashem will redeem us from this exile as He has redeemed us from all other exiles.

While this passage in the Haggadah maligns Laban, there are differing views among commentators about his character. Many don’t see him as an evil person but rather as a complex character who eventually listened to Hashem’s warning, and overcame his feelings of jealousy and hatred to make peace with Jacob, vowing never to hurt Jacob or anyone in his family (see Genesis 31:44-54). We will return to this fascinating discussion in more depth when we get to Parashat Vayetze. when we’ll have the opportunity to analyze the relevant verses and interpretations.

Shabbat Shalom!

* This article was written together with Charles Shenitz from Silver Spring, Maryland. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Pianist Leon Fleisher and the Story of Persistence and Perseverance

Yesterday, the brilliant concert pianist Leon Fleisher celebrated his 86th birthday. This world-famous pianist went through one of the most difficult challenges - if not the most difficult - a musician can face, and overcame it with perseverance and determination. 

Born in San Francisco in 1928, Fleisher began playing piano at 4, and at the young age of 16, he debuted with the New York Philharmonic. A brilliant career seemed assured. But at the age of 36, at the height of his career, Fleisher lost the use of two fingers on his right hand due to a neurological condition called focal dystonia, which ended his performing career

You can imagine the depression he went through. Losing the use of his right hand was tantamount to a great athlete losing a leg. 

In his 2010 memoir, My Nine Lives, he describes the emotional roller-coaster he went through when he lost the ability to play with his right hand:

It was hard to find words for the dark cloud that hovered over me: of anguish, of dejection, of rage. I fell into a deep depression. At my lowest point, I seriously considered killing myself. But I didn't kill myself. I stayed alive. And, just as I was stuck with being alive, I was stuck with my love of music. Something about it was still sustaining, and still worthwhile. So I embarked on a quest to make a life in music, in any way I could. 
So he dedicated himself to teaching. He focused on his students at the Peabody Institute, Johns Hopkins University's School of Music, and on the Tanglewood Music Center near Boston where he was artistic director. He channeled his frustration into a productive life as a music teacher and mentor, overcoming the depression that had threatened to engulf him and sink his entire life. 

He also learned how to conduct and he learned left-handed pieces, playing some famous compositions for the left-hand only by Ravel, Prokofiev and Britten that were commissioned by a wealthy Austrian pianist who had lost his right arm in World War I. But it was mainly teaching where he found his calling, as his son Julian says, "Teaching is where he found his real happiness." 

Fleisher never gave up on the idea of playing again with two hands. He had tried therapy after therapy, but to no avail. He kept believing, and continued searching for a remedy. Then, in 1995, after endless attempts at therapies, he miraculously found a cure through Botox injections and rolfing - a form of therapy that structurally changes connective tissues restoring their pliability and range of motion. 

Fleisher gave his first two-handed recital at Carnegie Hall in 2003, and the following year, Vanguard Classics released Two Hands, Fleisher's first two-handed recording since the 1960s, to great critical acclaim. 

His perseverance is a testament to our power to overcome challenges and prevail over setbacks. When God closes one door, he opens another door for us. We just have to learn to find that other door.

Here is Leon Fleisher, the teacher: 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Three Valuable Life Lessons from World Cup 2014

Guest post by my friend Gons Nachman who was wrongfully convicted in a seriously flawed and unfair trial, and is now serving time:

I am a native Costa Rican and US citizen currently serving an unjust federal prison sentence. A few months ago, the World Soccer Cup lottery resulted in Costa Rica having to play three former world champions and soccer powerhouses: Italy, England and Uruguay. Other Latino inmates at this prison facility expected Costa Rica's team to be humiliated because it's "en el grupo de la muerte" (the group of death). I confess that I was also concerned about what the young Costa Rican players would face in Brazil.

To everyone's surprise, however, the "Ticos" have displayed fearless courage and determination in facing soccer's giants. They won or drew all of their games, and, after eking out a dramatic victory over Greece, secured a coveted spot among the 8 finalists! Irrespective of the eventual results in this tournament, these players' positive attitude against all odds serves as a powerful source of inspiration.

When I received a cruel 20 year federal prison sentence in August 2008, over false allegations made against me in the Congo -- allegations I could not fairly contest from a prison cell where I lacked access to evidence from that isolated African country -- I could have broken down and drowned in fear and pessimism. After all, as a Costa Rican native of humble background, I lacked the resources to contest an unjust judicial process orchestrated against me by certain members of US government, the most powerful entity on earth. Yet like the young Costa Rican players, I decided to face my worst fears and make the most of my unexpected situation with faith and a positive attitude. 

Over the past six and a half years of incarceration, I have learned many valuable lessons that have changed my life for the best. I have been given the opportunity to live with vulnerable men of all ages and to see their daily struggles to cope with a myriad of challenges inside and outside of prison. Most of them are serving unnecessarily long sentences - for mostly non-violent crimes - which only serve to isolate them further from their families, their communities and society at large. 

1. Avoid Being Judgmental. Instead of judging them for mistakes they may have made, I have chosen to treat them as human beings and to assist them in any way I can. As a former human rights lawyer and US consular officer, I have previously visited incarcerated people in the US and abroad. While it is ironic that now I am incarcerated, my past experience has nonetheless given me valuable skills in understanding and coping with the needs of incarcerated people. 

2. Contribute to the Well-Being of Others. Prisons are places where negativity and pessimism abound and hope and compassion are in short supply. As such, one can make significant contributions to the well-being of others by simply serving as a source of support, encouragement and kindness. Despite the macho attitude that serves to hide the deep-seated insecurities of most prisoners, I do not hesitate to publicly hug other inmates and to treat them with affection. Perhaps, I can get away with this due to my Costa Rican background and friendly disposition. I have also used my academic skills and human rights experience to work as an ESL, GED and Spanish teacher, a track coach, and an unofficial "mentor" to particularly vulnerable inmates. These activities have given me the opportunity to contribute to the education and well-being of inmates who one day will have to re-adapt to life in the outside world.

In this prison, I am known as "Costa Rica", which is quite appropriate, since my friendly, upbeat and relaxed attitude is typical of most "Ticos" whose typical greeting is "pura vida" (pure life). Soon after my arrival at this facility, I realized that remaining positive, despite the hardships of long-term incarceration, was essential to my well-being and to that of my loved ones. I also noticed that instead of complaining - which is the norm with inmates who suffer all sorts of emotional problems - I could focus on the many blessings in my life; a loving family, loyal friends, good health and a life filled with academic, professional, and athletic opportunities as well as  world-wide travel. Additionally, focusing on the positive while remaining optimistic, helps uplift the energy or "vibes" all around me, something that is sorely needed in a prison environment. 

3. Rise to the Challenge. I have also learned how it is precisely from challenges and adversities that one matures, learns and evolves mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Like the Costa Rican soccer team in Brazil, I have faced a situation in which others expected capitulation and failure. Instead, like the young Tico players, I have used my heart and determination to face my worst fears and find that I can continue to experience joy and make a difference even in the midst of a challenging prison setting. 

Although all of us are bound to face unexpected challenges of all sorts in our lives - challenges that may initially look as hopeless as the "group of death" in which Costa Rica initially found itself in this World Cup - it is ultimately up to us to transcend our fears and seize the moment with courage and determination. After all, what counts most is not always the end result of a situation, but our intent, our efforts and the lessons we learn from the process. Through this experience, I have also learned that, even when one does not understand the ultimate meaning of an event or situation, in a larger spiritual sense, everything always does work out for the best.

Friday, June 20, 2014

'Of Course It's True, I Read It on the Internet'

In this week's Torah portion, Korach, we have a teachable moment which shows us the importance of gathering more facts and conducting  additional research before reaching conclusions.  

We read about the failed uprising of Korach, a Levite, and his co-conspirators, the Reubenites Dathan and Aviram and On ben Pelet, who gathered another 250 men, chieftains of the community, and rebelled against Moses' leadership. They sought to overthrow Moses and Aaron, claiming that "the entire congregation is holy" and asking rhetorically why should Moses and Aaron solely have all the power. To prove the authenticity of Moses' mission, God miraculously caused the Earth to burst asunder, and Korach and his family were swallowed up by the Earth. 

What happened to Korach's sons? Based on this week's reading, the entire Korach family was swallowed by the Earth: 
Scarcely had he finished speaking all these words when the ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and all their possessions(Numbers 16:31-32)
Thus, if you were to make up your mind based solely on the story as recounted in our parasha, your conclusion would be that the sons perished too. But you would be completely mistaken! 

In Parashat Pinchas - which will be read in synagogues in 3 weeks - you will find a startling discovery. In the midst of the census of the tribe of Levi, the Torah says:

.וּבְנֵי קֹרַח לֹא מֵתוּ

“The sons of Korah did not die”
(Numbers 26:11)

Obviously, your earlier conclusion is wrong. But how did they escape punishment? The Torah adds no further details. You may surmise that perhaps they escaped the punishment because they were not physically present when the Earth opened up, and there's nothing more to their story. But you would be wrong, again. 

Reading what Rashi says on that verse, we come upon an interesting midrash that tries to reconcile the two seemingly contradictory accounts of what happened to the sons of Korach: 
They were originally involved in the conspiracy, but during the dispute they contemplated repentance; therefore, an elevated area was set apart for them in Gehinnom [hell], and they stayed there. 

So, they were swallowed up, but they are not dead spiritually since they are being kept in an "elevated area" just outside of hell. But, of course, this is not the peshat, the simple, literal meaning of the text. 

We need to read further on in the Bible to understand more about them. Continue reading, and you will discover that not only did Korach's sons survive, but a great person was among their descendants - the prophet Samuel! (Divrei Hayamim I, 6:18-23). Moreover, continue reading in  Divrei Haymim and you'll discover that King David appointed Prophet Samuel's son, Heyman, to be a singer in the Temple. 

And after further research, you would discover that Korach's descendants were such talented musicians and singers that they composed 11 of the psalms in the Book of Psalms (for example, Psalm 48, recited at the end of the morning prayer every Monday, which begins with: "A song, a psalm, by the sons of Korach: Great is God and much praised.")  

I have written previously how this sends a powerful message, telling us about the ability of people to courageously disassociate themselves from a bad family or community. It is no coincidence that the reward for standing up for what's right - at the expense of going against their own family - was being appointed as singers and musicians in the Temple. 

But there is another critical lesson. Before reaching conclusions about any issue, we must always seek out as much information as possible. We should never be satisfied with what we read somewhere or heard from others. It is vital to understand that without further research, our knowledge is, at best, partial, and - more often than not - incorrect. 

We live in a generation in which everyone is relying on the internet, looking up in Wikipedia and doing Google searches. It goes without saying that these are not trusted sources of information, and it would be so foolish to base our conclusions on what we read on websites. 

But it doesn't stop there. Don't be satisfied with what your rabbi or professor taught you. Don't think for a moment that what you read in one book - however reliable - is the entire story. There is more information out there, and it's up to you to do more research, consult additional sources, gather more facts, and understand there are more sides, or nuances, to the issue. 

Just as we need to look at many sources of information to get a complete understanding of the Sons of Korach, so too when we are searching for information on any topic. Never be satisfied with what others have said or written. When you do your own research, you are guaranteed to be rewarded with new insights. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014


This post is by Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun Magazine:

Kidnapping anyone, anytime is always a violation of a basic human right. But it is even more outrageous when done to children or teens who are particularly vulnerable.

So it is with shock and outrage that we at Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives respond to the kidnapping of 3 Israeli teens who were returning from their study at a yeshiva in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

We demand the immediate release and safe return of those teens to their families!

We were shocked and outraged at the kidnapping of hundreds of Christian girls by Muslim fundamentalists in Africa, with the implied story that these girls would be raped (the functional equivalent of “forced marriages” along with forced conversions to Islam).

. . . 

We reject any attempt to imply that somehow these acts are understandable given the oppressive conditions faced by the perpetrators.  In the case of the Israeli teens some commentators have rushed in to remind us that there are thousands of young Palestinians, some of them younger than the teens who were teenagers, who sit in Israeli prisons or “detention camps,” without trials and sometimes for many months. Yes, this is also a human rights violation. But so what? It doesn’t justify or legitimate the crime committed against these Israeli teens.

There are those who have pointed out that the teens were attending a Yeshiva in a right-wing settlement, and that Yeshiva doesn’t teach about the humanity or the suffering of the Palestinian people, but instead justifies and de facto increases that suffering by participating in discriminatory practices that are part of the daily reality of the Occupation. Again, so what? No matter how reactionary the teachings, it is never appropriate to kidnap or inflict pain on others, except possibly in circumstances of immediate self-defense.

And these teens were not the perpetrators or the creators of the Occupation. They were children doing what their parents had brought them up to do and to be.

I’ve recently heard another such ridiculous attempt to “contextualize” this kidnapping. Just as, when Palestinian children have been shot or killed by Israeli forces enforcing the Occupation, some Israelis and American Jews have said (publicly and in a variety of Jewish newspapers) “these Palestinians don’t really care about their children, else they wouldn’t let them participate in activities that are known to be at risk,” so now some are saying that “Israelis don’t really care about their children, else they wouldn’t be sending them to study in a war zone in which violence against Palestinians is sometimes met by violence against Israelis—so anyone raising their children in the settlements or sending them to study in the Occupied West Bank really have only themselves to blame for whatever happens to them.”  

This reasoning is as obnoxious when applied to Israelis as it was when applied to Palestinians (or for that matter, when applied to parents who let their children get drafted into an army). The reality is that most parents whatever their religious, national, ethnic or racial backgrounds care equally and intensely about the well-being of their children, and the reasons that they get convinced to put their kids into situations of danger have little to do with how much they love their kids. When I signed permission for my own son to serve in the Israeli paratroopers, I was terrified and remained so throughout the time he was jumping from airplanes and serving in the Israeli army. I cared deeply for my son’s welfare and loved him intensely, spent all week waiting for him to return to our Jerusalem apartment just before Shabbat so I could wash his clothes and feed him home made Shabbat food. I’m not going to go into all the factors that led me to allow him to serve (“allow” because the Israeli military won’t allow an only child to serve in a combat unit without the signed agreement of their parent), but it certainly wasn’t lack of love. And I’ve spoken to many Palestinians whose children have been wounded or killed and they too care just as much about their children as any Israeli or American or any other parents on the planet.

For those of us who want to see an end to all this kind of suffering, it is appropriate for us to demand an end to all wars and all violence, and an end of conditions that create this violence, including ending global poverty, ending the xenophobia and racism and homophobia and demeaning of “the other” (whether that other be Jewish Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, or whatever), and to urgently seek to end the environmental destructiveness that will soon become the source of more violence between “the haves” and “the have nots.” And it is appropriate to demand an end to the Occupation of the West Bank, to the occupation of Tibet by China and Chechnya by Russia, and an end to every other unjust denial of rights to people who want their freedom.

Yet none of this should replace our outrage at the acts of kidnapping that go on “in the meantime.” And that is why we start and finish this note with a demand that whoever has those Israeli teens must return them immediately and safely to their families. And as a rabbi, I add to that demand a prayer for their well-being and the well-being of their families.*

Rabbi Michael Lerner

* Shamai's note: On days when the Torah is read, it is customary to recite a prayer, colloquially known as mi sheberach lacholim, for the healing and well-being of all in our community. We insert the names of those for whom we are concerned, and the traditional format for their names is:

[person's name] son/daughter of [person's mother]

(It is unclear how this custom developed, but one explanation is that we're asking G-d to be like the mother, to sustain and nourish the sick person, and be filled with compassion for them.) 

In this case, we say: 

May God bless, heal and return safely Yaakov Naftali ben Rachel Devora, Gilad Michael ben Gat Galim, and Eyal ben Iris Teshurah. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Biblical Counter-Terrorism Advice

This week's Torah portion, Bamidbar, describes in great detail the census of the Israelites in the wilderness, and specifies the Israelites' camping and travel arrangements according to their tribes --  seemingly mundane matters.

But in the midst of these -- let's be honest about it -- boring numerical data, there is an important piece of counter-terrorism advice!

You must be asking - how is that possible?

Incidental to the census of the Tribe of Levi, we find a verse recalling a tragic event from the past -- the death of Aaron's two sons, Nadab and Abihu, in a heavenly ball of fire:
"But Nadab and Abihu died by the will of the Lord, when they offered alien fire before the Lord in the wilderness of Sinai; and they left no sons." (Numbers 3:4)
This sentence is bewildering. Since we already know the circumstances of the death of Nadab and Abihu, which were recounted in great detail in Parashat Shemini (Leviticus ch. 9 & 10) and referenced again in Acharei Mot (Leviticus 16:1) why is it necessary for the Torah to repeat this event? 

Moreover, this seems to violate the principle that it is prohibited to remind someone of their previous sins. In Talmudic parlance, it's known as "onaat devarim," the prohibition to say anything that would pain, hurt, or embarrass another person. (The Talmud in Baba Metzia 58b derives this principle from a verse in Vayikra 25:17 "One shall not aggrieve his fellow, and you shall fear your G-d, for I am Hashem your G-d.")

There must be an important educational message to justify the painful reminder of this tragic event.

Back in Shemini, we are told that Nadab and Abihu offered "before the Lord alien fire which He did not command them." (Leviticus 10:1). What is the import of this "alien fire"? 

One of the greatest 19th century scholars, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin of Volozhin, best known by the acronym Netziv, explains:

They entered because of the fire of enthusiastic love of God, and the Torah teaches that even though love of God be very dear in the eyes of God, this is not the way; He  did not command this.
In other words, because of their religious fervor, Aaron's sons performed acts which God had not ordered. Their religious zeal led them astray. Thus, even religious fervor can be an "alien fire." 

The Netziv points out that over-enthusiasm in the performance of mitzvot can lead to loss of judgment and misguided actions which have tragic consequences. The "alien fire" is an expression and symbol of a warped service of God; a religious philosophy in which "the end justifies the means."

In our parasha, the Torah appends an important fact - hitherto unknown - about Nadab and Abihu: 
"and they left no sons." 
At first blush, this seems to be important solely for the purpose of the census. But perhaps there is more meaning to this statement. This additional fact may very well be a key explanation of why people perform radical and extreme acts in the name of religion. 

Instead of engaging in cultivating their own garden, e.g. meeting women, getting married, raising children, building a career, living a normal life, Nadab and Abihu immersed themselves in a world of holiness. They viewed everything in their life through a prism of holiness. Driven and consumed by this desire to be immersed in holiness, they made a grave error of judgment and crossed the boundaries -- only to be punished and die in a terrible death.

According to this interpretation, "and they left no sons" is the cause of their tragic fateThis is why they became religious zealots. Had they understood that the Torah commands us to live normal lives, they would not have reached so tragic an end.

People who are not living a normal life, people who are not interested in physical pleasures - are easily radicalized. In this day and age, when we are devoting so much time and energy to foil terrorist plots of religious extremists, this is an important piece of counter-terrorism advice.  

The combination of a disdain for worldly pleasures and a passion for religion is highly combustible, and can lead to acts of extremism and terror. If you want to foil terrorist plots, look in places where they preach and practice asceticism. 

Yigal Amir, the Jewish terrorist who murdered Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was unmarried. Ditto Nidal Malik Hasan, the Muslim terrorist and perpetrator of the Ford Hood massacre. Likewise, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 over Detroit. These are examples of people who turned away worldly pleasures and family life, and their warped religious devotion radicalized them to the point of committing murder. 

Of course, there are counter-examples. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one the Boston Marathon bombers, was married with a daughter. Yet, he, too, was radicalized and became a mass murderer. So having a family is no insurance against radicalization, but the common theme - in both married and unmarried fundamentalists - is a loss of interest in worldly pleasures. 

Another conclusion follows: maintaining a normal life is just as important to proper religious observance. God does not want us to give up on the normal joys and enjoyments of life.

I remember listening to and reading about West Bank settlers, and their leaders, accusing the secular sectors of Israeli society as being shallow people, who just want to enjoy the normal pleasures of life. This week's parsha is a powerful rebuttal: Living a normal life and wanting to be normal like the rest of the world is a desirable goal; in fact, it's essential for balancing out the dangers of religious radicalism.

Certainly, not all people who devote their lives to attaining holiness are terrorists; but one must be cautious of people who are so religious and wrapped up in "holy talk"  that they neglect to enjoy the pleasures of life. The story of Nadab and Abihu is significant because it teaches us that if people focus too much on holiness (whether holiness of people, objects or land) they can easily lose good moral judgment, even to the extent of justifying killing innocent people.