Elation and tragedy. Excessive joy combined with grief. The culmination of a process, and the horrific results of a human error. These terms could be used to describe the events found in the first part of this week’s parsha. We finally reach the point at which “Kevod Hashem” appears to Am Yisrael during the dedication of the mishkan. It is the ultimate stage after weeks of preparation and seven days of dedication. The eighth day is described as the pinnacle of this process and therefore a unique service in the mishkan is scheduled for this occasion.
In the midst of this euphoria, Aharon’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer a type of incense in the mishkan and as a result are killed by means of a fire descending from heaven. The wonderful celebration of the mishkan is at once marred by this tragedy. [Note: The formal mourning process did not begin until after the celebratory ceremony, as is defined by halacha but we can only try to imagine the emotional turmoil in which Aharon and the people found themselves.]
The commentaries discuss the nature of the sin of Aharon’s sons’ in order to explain why they were so harshly punished. Let us add a slightly different question: What caused Nadav and Avihu to perform this act which merited such a response? The answer given to the first question may enlighten us with respect to Nadav and Avihu’s motives.
The most well known explanation of their sin is found in Rashi. Citing the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael in Vayikra Rabbah, Rashi states that they were punished for entering the mikdash while under the influence of alcohol. The textual proof for this view is based on the fact that immediately following this incident the Torah states the laws prohibiting the kohanim from entering the mikdash after drinking wine and beer. This answers the first, oft asked question, but offers little insight into the motives of Nadav and Avihu.
On close examination of the text, Nadav and Avihu’s error would seem to be clear.
“ They brought before Hashem a strange fire, which He had not commanded them (to do)” Vayikra 10:2.
They had not been commanded to bring this fire, this incense, yet they did it all the same. Their mistake was that they initiated their own service, they brought a form of sacrifice which was not part of the official order of events. We will turn to the significance of this later.
Rashi cites another explanation for Nadav and Avihu’s sin. In a quote from the midrash Torat Kohanim, Rashi states that their mistake was teaching halacha before their Rav, or making a halachic decision which it was not their place to do. We wonder why such an error deserves such a harsh punishment. In addition, what was this halacha on which they ruled?
In order to answer these questions let us look at an interesting parallel in chumash to our story. In the middle of the book of Bamidbar, Moshe is faced with a rebellion. Korach, his cousin, gets together several groups of people who question Moshe and Aharon’s right to the leadership positions. Without entering a detailed discussion of that episode, it is important to note that there were two main factions involved in the uprising. The first group comprised elements from the tribe of Reuven, such as the infamous Datan and Aviram, who questioned Moshe’s ability to lead the people. The other was made up of 250 random members of Am Yisrael who maintained that, “all the congregation are holy”(Bamidbar 16:3) thus staking a claim to the priesthood. Korach appears to be a member of both camps.
The punishment afforded the first group is well known; they were swallowed up by the ground. The second group is often overlooked. On the command of Hashem, Moshe challenged them to attempt to bring incense before G-d. These 250 men, who then had the audacity to try to prove that they were indeed worthy of the priesthood, were also killed. Their punishment however, was unlike that of their rebellious colleagues. About them we are told, “ A fire went forth from Hashem and consumed the two hundred and fifty men offering incense.” (Bamidbar 17:35)
Their fate seems strikingly similar to that of Nadav and Avihu! Furthermore, they were involved in similar activity, service in the mishkan but not in the method prescribed by G-d Himself.
The episode in parashat Korach involves a group of people who, whilst attacking Moshe’s leadership, elected to demonstrate that they too had the right to serve in the mishkan. Hashem responds with direct fire which stemmed from Him in order to demonstrate that Moshe was only acting as His emissary and that He will choose who are kohanim and who are not.
A similar fire, emanating from Hashem consumes Nadav and Avihu. They elected to bring a fire “about which they had not been commanded” and thus they rebelled against Moshe’s authority. They may also have thought that they, too, were worthy of going into the Kodesh Hakodoshim like their father Aharon. They thus decided themselves who may and who may not enter the holiest part of the mishkan. They ruled what one may sacrifice and when. Nadav and Avihu undermined Moshe’s leadership in the same way as the 250 men of Korach’s time. Nadav and Avihu made a halachic decision without consulting their Rav, in this case Moshe. Hashem’s reponse is the same in both cases – direct retribution which stems from the Almighty Himself.
Let us now return to the words “ asher lo tziva otam” about which they had not been commanded. The key phrase found in the description of the erection of the mishkan is: “ka’asher tziva Hashem et Moshe” as Hashem commanded Moshe. This phrase is repeated over and over again Its message is resoundingly clear. The formula for building the mishkan and that of its use, was delivered by Hashem to Moshe and exactly that formula was to be used. No little detail could be changed. Everything was to be followed down to the last letter.
By bringing an alien fire, one not previously included in the Divine formula, Nadav and Avihu were both rebelling against Moshe as the emissary of G-d, and performing an act antithetical to the purpose of the mishkan. We are to serve Hashem exactly as he describes and in no other way. The response from G-d was so severe in order to demonstrate that human initiatives in the mishkan were not welcome. The korbanot have a clear framework which includes room for individual expression (free will offerings) but not for anarchy. Nadav and Avihu’s actions were dangerous in the sense that they undermined Moshe as Rashi quoting the midrash suggests. Their sin was also in their attempt to not only play Moshe, but also to play G-d.
Man must be aware of his limitations. Even in the sphere of religion and under the guise of spiritual growth not all is permitted. Judaism provides a structure for our religious and spiritual health. It is not for us to change that structure but rather to work within it and thus achieve closeness to Hashem.
Shabbat shalom – Rav Yonatan
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