Rashbam: Habitual vs. Strategic Action (Shmini)

Habits have been described as the hidden architecture of our lives. Whether “good” or “bad,” habits shape us, from the rhythm of brushing teeth to the pairing of wine with dinner after a long day. If you want to change your life, pay attention to the little things, and slowly, regularly, day by day, practice who you want to become.

On the other hand, lives are also altered dramatically by singular experiences that never repeat. From a stunning vacation to the death of a loved one, these experiences shift us from life as we had lived it until that moment to a new life not yet imagined. Many of these singular experiences we cannot control, either to avoid or to embrace. They simply happen. However, sometimes we can strategically create such moments.

In Going Public, community organizer Michael Gecan tells a story about strategic surprise. A number of clergy and communal leaders went to city hall to advocate with some officials. They learned in advance how the room would be set up. “At the head of the room was a raised dais, with fifteen very plush leather chairs. In front of each chair was a microphone. Here, on high, in comfort, powerful public officials were supposed to sit. In the center of the room, in a cluster, were eight or so rickety wooden chairs—places for the peons.”

The team decided to arrive early, managed to make their way into the room, and occupied the fifteen plush chairs on high. When the housing commissioner arrived, an awkward exchange ensued, until the commissioner “hesitated, and then slowly, reluctantly, lowered himself onto one of the wooden chairs. It creaked a bit. His staff followed his lead. I have never seen five more uncomfortable men. They weren’t just physically uncomfortable, they were politically uncomfortable. They were having the tables turned on them, literally, and they couldn’t figure out how to respond.” You can bet that event left an impression. Strategic use of creative, one-time experiences can change the world, just as surely as habitual discipline.

All of this brings me to this week’s parashah, with its troubling story of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s two older sons, who offer strange fire at the altar and are consumed by God’s fire. What did they do wrong? The Rashbam, Samuel ben Meir (12th century France), suggests they went for habit when Moses had a special strategy for the grand opening day of the Mishkan’s sacrificial system. While normally the priests would start the fires on the altar, but on this day, God personally would burn the offerings.

Even though on all other days it is written that “the sons of Aaron the priest should put fire onto the altar” (Leviticus 1:7), today [specifically] Moses did not command [that that be done]. He did not want them to bring a “regular” fire, because they were expecting the descent of the divine fire. It would have been inappropriate to bring an alien fire on that specific day; [they should have waited] so that God’s Name would be sanctified when everyone would find out that a fire had descended from heaven. Elijah said similarly, “Apply no fire” (1 Kings 18:25), because he wanted to sanctify God’s Name through the descent of a fire from above. (Translation Martin Lockshin)

The “strange” fire according to Rashbam means simply that Nadav and Avihu overlooked the possibility and even necessity of a special ritual moment. Caught up in their own desire to act automatically, they didn’t realize until too late how out of alignment they were. Burning up completely symbolizes their total immersion in habit. We are reminded to be flexible from time to time.

How do you know when to nurture habits and when to seek transformational experiences? What elements of Shabbat are habitual (in helpful or less helpful ways)? How might you seek transformation on one Shabbat, perhaps even this one?

For more about Rashbam, see my introduction.