Don’t Play with Fire!
Visualize the situation. It’s the first of Nissan, a year after the exodus from Egypt, and Am Yisrael celebrates the consecration of the Mishkan. They have succeeded in transforming the one-time experience of the Revelation at Sinai into an ongoing reality of Mishkan. Imagine thesimcha, the unparalleled enthusiasm, the spiritual high:
“And Moshe and Aharon went into the Tent of Meeting, and came out, and blessed the people: And the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. And there came a fire from before the Lord, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat: which, when all the people saw, they shouted, and fell on their faces.”
And then, just as they reach the pinnacle of achievement, everything suddenly turns sour:
“And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon, took each of them his censer, and put fire in it, and put incense on it, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He commanded them not. And a fire went out from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moshe said to Aharon, This is it that which the Lord spoke, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come near me, and before all the people I will be glorified, And Aharon held his peace.” (Vayikra, 10:1-3)
What happened? On the one hand, it seems Nadav and Avihu committed some terrible crime. Yet what does Moshe mean when he implies they died because they were close to God? And what is going through Aharon’s mind? Amongst other things, this was meant to be his and his sons’ initiation to their holy avodah; instead he now looks on bewildered as two of his sons die before his very eyes.
There are numerous approaches to this tragic episode, both in Chazal and in later parshanut. Let us look at two of them.
The Abarbanel suggests there were five specific transgressions:
1. In reference to the Gemara (Yoma 26), he explains the avodahinvolving incense is not generally reserved for the Kohen Gadol, even though he does have precedence over other Kohanim if he so wishes. However, on this unique day, if any Kohen was meant to function it was the Kohen Gadol. Perhaps Nadav and Avihu wrongly assumed they held equal status to their father because they too had been ordained with oil.
2. Even if they were correct in assuming they were of equal status, twoKohanim must never offer incense simultaneously. So if they were allowed to do this avodah, it could only be one and not both of them.
3. Apart from performing forbidden avodah, they also went into the Holy of Holies, a place reserved exclusively for the Kohen Gadol to enter onYom Kippur alone.
4. Even if all of the above are ignored, Nadav and Avihu brought fire from outside the Mishkan. The fire used for the incense must be taken from the altar.
5. The fifth and final transgression was that on this special occasion, Moshe and only Moshe was to offer the incense, not even the Kohen Gadol. They thus did something that even their father was not going to do.
These five contraventions are blatant to say the least. It would therefore seem very unlikely Nadav and Avihu were misled or ignorantly unaware of what they were doing. What drove them to behave in such an unacceptable manner?
Rav Hirsch suggests their behavior reflects an attitude of conceited vanity. They did not think of consulting their father about their ideas; perhaps they thought they needed no advice. Each one exclusively followed his own path, in the way he thought best; they may not even have consulted each other. However, it would still appear that Moshe felt their intention was praiseworthy. At the height of this spiritual celebration it seems they were inspired to do ‘their own thing.’ However, the mere fact they went solo at the very moment God displayed His proximity to the entire Nation showed they did not possess the real spirit of a Kohen.
The Kohen is at one with, and part of, the Nation. It is only within the national context that his standing has any significance before the Almighty.
Moreover, their act was one God had not commanded them to do. There is no place in the entire avodah of the offerings in the Mishkan for subjectively doing what you think is right. Even free-will offerings have to keep meticulously within the prescribed limits of forms and kinds. The only way to achieve the ultimate objective of the Mishkan – coming closer to God – is through obedience; subordination to His Will.
We must understand Nadav and Avihu’s death at the first moments of consecration as the most solemn of warnings to all Kohanim. It clearly excludes from the Mishkan every expression of caprice, and every subjective idea of right! The Kohen has to establish the authenticity of his actions by carrying out God’s orders and not by personal spiritual innovation, however well intended.
The Abarbanel gives us five legitimate explanations of Nadav and Avihu’s sin, but Rav Hirsch is an essential addition, because he goes to the root of the matter. Indeed, the five transgressions are severe, but the external action is never the fundamental problem; it is merely an outward expression of the sinner’s tainted inner soul. Rav Hirsch homes in on two issues that are perhaps different sides of the same coin, but nevertheless each worthy of comment in their own right. It is also quite possible that only one of the issues was the genuine problem and not both.
Nadav and Avihu’s act could be interpreted as a sin both against the people and against God.
They sinned against the people by separating themselves from the masses. They apparently have more to offer, more to say; they are different and deserve special attention. They misunderstand their role. Instead of being holy representatives, they raise themselves above and beyond the people. They do not perceive themselves as delegates of the Nation, but rather as an elite group with special access to the Holy One. Hence the ‘tedious’ directives meant for the community bear no relevance whatsoever to them and they can do as they feel.
Perhaps they fail where so many other leaders also fail. The duty of the mentor is to serve his people; to dedicate his whole being for the good of his country. His people are his cause; he will rise with them and fall with them. The true leader is not interested in personal gains; he is only concerned for the wellbeing of his subjects. When we briefly look at our greatest leaders we see none of them went in search of glory; indeed, most were forced into their positions of responsibility by Heavenly decree.
Moshe Rabbeinu, our greatest ever leader, repeatedly refused to lead the people out of Egypt. However, he was fully prepared to lay his life on the line for Am Yisrael.
Gideon was urged by the people to become their king, but he refused, instructing the people the Almighty was the only King they needed.
When King Shaul was to be officially inaugurated, he was found hiding amongst the vessels.
Even King David himself patiently awaited his turn, doing nothing whatsoever to speed up the political reality. Quite the contrary. David was more than passive in Shaul’s demise and even tried to prevent it.
Nadav and Avihu assumed their divinely elevated position gave themhalachic license, but they were terribly mistaken. They should have watched the proceedings from the sidelines with the rest of Am Yisrael. If they had celebrated together with the people their rejoicing would have been genuine. Their actions showed that in the depths of their heart their celebration was of themselves and not of the Almighty.
This interpretation is a real indictment, and it becomes extremely difficult to reconcile with Moshe’s words of comfort: “This is it that which the Lord spoke, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come near me, and before all the people I will be glorified.” Moshe still sees them as holy men and not as egotistical elitists who ultimately got what they deserved.
And so we turn to Rav Hirsch’s second comment. He alludes to the perhaps more obvious wrongdoing that Nadav and Avihu did not do exactly what Hashem had commanded. However, in contrast to his first comment, this action shows no definitive indication of narcissism; quite the contrary. Their act could simply have been an expression of excess enthusiasm. This is not the only instance in Tenach where matters slipped from the acceptable norm into the realms of unacceptable behavior during an intensely spiritual experience. For example, when King David first tries to bring the Holy Ark to Yerushalayim, the celebration is marred and cancelled by the sudden death of Uzzah, who grabbed at the Aronbecause the oxen shook it.
We could possibly suggest Nadav and Avihu became so engrossed in spiritual ecstasy they momentarily lost sight of their ultimate objective. If we are to accept this interpretation, we can perhaps understand Moshe’s comforting words. People of this stature, destined to hold high office in the Mishkan, cannot under any circumstances relinquish their halachicobligations. They must set an example to the masses. True divine service requires objective application. The ideal way to serve is by doing exactly what He commands.
If our leaders start behaving in an ad hoc manner there is little to no chance Am Yisrael will strictly adhere to the Torah’s commands. Even on the most euphoric of occasions, the Torah tells us exactly what to do, and that is what we must do. Our expressions of enthusiasm and elation must remain with the bounds of Halacha. There can be no freelancing inAvodat Hashem, by definition. We are Avdei Hashem, servants of Hashem, and we cannot be self-employed.
So we have seen two possible motives behind the actions of Nadav and Avihu. The first reflects a selfish arrogance; the second an uncontrolled spirit. The former could never be encouraged and the latter could easily be mistaken as a positive phenomenon.
But how could we end without referring to the exemplary behavior ofAharon HaKohen? If Nadav and Avihu failed in setting an example, their father is the complete antithesis. He has reached what is probably the greatest moment of his life, and his two sons lie dead at his feet. And what is his reaction? “And Aharon held his peace.” Is this not exceptional? Is this not ultimate faith? Despite what must have been a raging inner conflict, Aharon remains silent. He accepts, because he is the true believer.
If his sons lost control of their emotions, he stands firmly in Mishkan Hashem in full control of his feelings. At that moment, Aharon stands as the eternal example of the believing Jew in the face of tragedy. How many times have we been required to hold our peace, to stand trembling in silence over the last 2000 years? We may have had an endless ocean of questions, but Am Yisrael did not hesitate for one moment in their belief of the Almighty. We stand inspired by Aharon. Our peace is real, for it is eternal.
And so the Mishkan is consecrated, but not just through sacrifice and celebration. Our holiness is initiated by example, both negative and positive. These two paradigms combine to define precisely what we must do and instruct us exactly how to do it.
Shabbat Shalom – Rav David Milston