The central motif in our Parasha is the final dedication of the Mishkan. With the dedication of the Miskan, Bnei Yisrael have finally come full circle. Having ascended to the spiritual height of Har Sinai, only to plunge to the spiritual rock bottom represented by Chet HaEgel, Bnei Yisrael have now re-scaled the mountain, and have firmly returned the Shechina to their midst. Yet this spiritual high is marred, as was Ma’amad Har Sinai, by the failings of those from whom more was expected. The dedication of the Mishkan witnesses the death of Nadav and Avihu, while in Shemot (24:10-11) we see that the leaders of Bnei Yisrael (who Rashi specifically identifies as Nadav, Avihu, and the seventy elders) are lax in their approach to perceiving God, but are spared punishment. What is it about the quest for God’s presence that seems to invite personal tragedy, to the extent that Moshe Rabbenu can tell Aharon, as related by the Midrash quoted by Rashi (VaYikra 10:3), that he knew that the Mishkan would be consecrated through the death of one who was close to Him? And how did Nadav and Avihu come to play a role in this drama?
If we look at the Pessukim describing the behavior and fate of Nadav and Avihu, we are struck by at least two issues. Firstly, the passuk seems pretty clear about what they did wrong; it’s just that we don’t understand what it is. Says the Passuk (10:1): “And the sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, each took his staff and placed upon it a flame, and placed upon it (the flame) Ketoret (incense) and brought before God an alien fire (Aish Zara) that had not been commanded of them”. The two key points here seem to be the introduction of the Aish Zara and acting in a fashion that they had not been commanded. The connection between the two, however, is unclear. Where there two flaws in their behavior, or only one? What is Aish Zara, and if it is something that does not belong in the Mishkan, then what does it mean that they were not commanded? Clearly, they were not commanded to bring something inappropriate into the Mishkan! And finally, how could the Torah (10:3) seemingly exalt Nadav and Avihu in death, as indicated by Moshe’s words to Aharon, if they died due to a sin?
A look at Rashi on the first Passuk is of little help. Rashi, quoting the Midrash and the Gemara, offers two explanations to the sin of Nadav and Avihu. One opinion states that they are punished for establishing the Halacha in the presence of Moshe Rabbenu, and failing to consult with him, while the other suggests that they are punished for entering the Mishkan after drinking wine. While neither explanation links directly with our Passuk, one could suggest that whatever uncommanded act Nadav and Avihu did was what they failed to consult Moshe over. The second explanation, while clearly being unconnected to our Passuk, in fact explains a different problem, namely, why does the command to the kohanim not to drink wine before performing any act in the Mikdash appear here (8-11), interrupting the description of the dedication of the Mishkan? Using Rashi’s explanation, the connection is clear. Given the lack of clarity in our Passuk regarding Nadav and Avihu’s actions, the Torah is signaling to us what they had done wrong.
Rashi now becomes the first in a series of commentaries who view Nadav and Avihu as having intentionally sinned and whose death while bringing the ketoret is the punishment. This line of thought is already evident in both the Gemara and the Midrash. The question is only what the sin was. The Abarbanel, for example, suggests that the brothers committed no less than six separate sins, all of which are alluded to in the Passuk. Rabbenu B’Chaye, quoting the Raavad, sees the sin as bringing an alein flame into the Mishkan, thereby suggesting that they doubted the ability of God to produce a miraculous fire which would burn both the Olah (see 9:23-24) and the ketoret. Their action then introduces an element of Chilul HaShem into the equation, by suggesting to B’nei Yisrael that God’s powers are limited. Perhaps most severe in his criticism is the Malbim, who goes as far as to suggest, based on the Gemara in Sanhedrin, that Nadav and Avihu were spurred by personal pride, and a desire to supercede Moshe and Aharon in the leadership of the nation. Rather than appreciate the spiritual radiance that Moshe and Aharon brought forth, they could only desire the mantle of leadership that Moshe and Aharon bore. No matter which of these approaches we adopt, we have to think about the severity of the punishment, and if it is consistent with the sin. Moreover, we need to understand how the punishment creates a Kiddush Hashem.
(It is interesting to note that Rashi himself makes no allusion here to what he said in the episode in Shemot that we mentioned above. There Rashi suggests that the leaders who “looked upon God” deserved death at the time, but that their punishment was postponed to a later date, in the case of Nadav and Avihu to the dedication of the Mishkan. If so, perhaps Nadav and Avihu did not even deserve to die for what they did here. An interesting parallel is the explanation of the Abarbanel to the sin of Mei Meriva, where he suggests that Moshe an Aharon are punished for previous sins, and not for actually hitting the rock.)
The Rashbam suggests an entirely different approach. He believes that Nadav and Avihu did not sin at all, but they merely misunderstood what had to be done on the day of the Mishkan’s dedication, as opposed to the general Avoda in the Mishkan. The Aish Zara was the same flame that the kohen would take from the alter every day to light the ketoret. The timing, after the Korban Tamid was slaughterd but before it was burned, was the same time the ketoret was burned every day. What they failed to realize, however, was that on this day, when the Mishkan was dedicated, only Aish HaShem was to be in the Mishkan. Thus, the fire they used was Zara on that day alone, and the lack of a command was on that day, as opposed to all subsequent days. The Rashbam concludes by pointing out that the flame that consumed them is the very same flame that came down in the previous Passuk (9:24). It left the heavens, burnt the ketoret on the Mizbayach HaZahav, at the same time killing Nadav and Avihu, and then continued outward, consuming the korban waiting on the outer mizbayach.
The Ibn Ezra suggests that Nadav and Avihu were oblivious, and in fact believed that they were acting in accordance with God’s wishes. He derives this from the Passuk “Vayamutu l’fnei Hashem” (10:2). The addition of the phrase “before God” indicates that they thought that they were acting properly.
Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, perhaps acting off of this Ibn Ezra, but certainly in line with his own views of the role of the Mishkan and the kohanim, sees the individual initiative taken by Nadav and Avihu as the root of the problem. The role of the korbanot in the Mishkan is to stress that through specific behavior a person achieves closeness to Hashem. As much as a person might feel that bringing an individual “touch” to his or her personal Avoda will make that Avoda more meaningful, the opposite is in fact the case. This is even truer for the kohanim. A kohen is not a free agent, but he is the messenger of the people in their encounter with Hashem. He is forbidden to do anything that might suggest that he is different. This is especially true of the ketoret, which is one of the few offerings that can not be donated to the Mikdash, but must be purchased from public funds. By bringing their own fire, by trying to add their own contribution to the process, Nadav and Avihu have in fact degraded the process and must be punished.
By using Rav Hirsch’s approach, we can appreciate the fitting nature of the deaths of Nadav abd Avihu, and how a Kiddush Hashem emerges from it. For the message is now loud and clear to all future kohanim, and to Am Yisrael in general. If you wish to serve Hashem, then it is on His terms and not on the terms of each given individual. Each of us brings to his or her personal Avoda their own personality, their own strengths and weaknesses. But the Avoda itself is a constant, one that unites us with all the Jewish people, past present and future. Our dedication to that Avoda is our continuing strength.
Shabbat Shalom V’Chag Atzmaut Samaech
R. Michael Susman
PS.Mazal Tov to Gila, who is getting married this week, and Mazal Tov to all the bogrot (there are actually too many to name) who have become engaged over the course of the past several weeks. May you all be zoche to build batim neemanim b’Yisrael