Nadav and Avihu, the two eldest sons of Aharon, meet their death in this week’s parsha; Divine fire descends from the heavens and kills them. Of course, the question is why? What did they do that was so wrong, deserving of such a brutal death? The Torah only explains their sin was in bringing a pan of ketoret: ‘they brought a foreign fire on the mizbeach that had not been commanded’, and for that, they die. There are many explanations on this idea, of course, and I’d like to share a few with you and then add on my own idea.
1) Chizkuni: Their real sin was bringing a foreign ketoret onto the mizbeach (with the ketoret labeled as ‘fire’ in the pasuk because, in the end, the way to offer up the ketoret was by burning it) and if that’s so, there is a specific injunction (mentioned at the building of the mizbeach) that no foreign ketoret can be brought upon ‘spices mizbeach’. They, as kohanim, the symbols of God service needed to heed this warning.
2) Ramban: The true mitzvah of bringing the ketoret is to focus on the ketoret itself, just as God had described exactly how He wanted it; problem was, as alluded to by the fact that what they brought is labeled as a ‘foreign fire’ and not a ‘foreign ketoret’, their focus was wrong. Their intention was misguided (for whatever reason – as will be explained soon) and therefore, having the incorrect intention, they were killed.
3) R. Hirsch: The whole point of the korbanot in general, and the ketoret specifically, is the strengthening of our relationship with God. Giving of ourselves (through the animal, etc.) to God, ‘coming close’ (from the root ‘karav’) to Him. We do this by following the exact rules He set out for these practices. When someone we care for has specific needs, the upholding of those needs brings us closer to the rule-setter. Nadav and Avihu, the supposedly paradigmatic examples of the closeness of God (kohanim) and the ability to get as close as possible (they performed the mishkan services) defy the system’s rules and do their own thing. God had to put an end to that immediately, teach a very quick, decisive, dramatic and important lesson to all those watching on this very special mishkan inauguration day: the most important part of the korban/mishkan system is the system itself. All the animals, flour, spices, etc. are useless if you’re not going to listen to God’s commands and fulfill His desires.
But truly, Aharon’s sons were not evil; surely they did not mean to openly defy God by their actions – so what drove them to this costly mistake? Most probably it was the excited fervor of the day. The mishkan was completed, they were chosen out of everyone to be the personal ‘attendants’ (kohanim) of God, and the first chance they get, as the gates open, they rush in and offer their own ketoret to God. But, if you say this, why were they killed? If everyone were killed each time they expressed a little over-excitement, well, they would be…dead.
I think the answer lies in the episode immediately before this one. On the very same day of inauguration, at the completion of the seven-day preparation period the Torah tells us that ‘Aharon blessed the nation’. Rashi explains this blessing was to be the ‘kohain bracha’ we all know which is recorded in Naso, but ignores the fact that it ‘wasn’t given yet’ in this week’s parsha based on the concept that there is no ‘earlier’ or ‘later’ in the Torah. Ramban, on the other hand, says that this was specifically not the bracha given by God later on in the Torah; rather, Aharon, seeing that this was a fitting time, made up his own bracha and delivered it to the people. Could this be?! Immediately after this scene his sons also independently decide it is a fitting situation and offer their own ketoret and they are killed, while Aharon, after reading the situation, offered his own bracha and it was fine?! These two episodes are not only linked conceptually, but also textually. For right after Aharon blesses the nation, the Torah states, ‘and a fire went out from before God and consumed, upon the mizbeach, the Olah and the fats…’; right after the sons of Aharon bring their foreign fire, the Torah states, ‘and a fire went out from before God and consumed them’ – the very same verse, verbatim, further forcing an explicit juxtaposition. So, what are we to learn from these episodes’ obvious contrast?
To add when you believe the situation calls for it is not only acceptable, but commendable (Aharon) but to think that, because you feel it seems right, you can add something illegal, this is wholly unacceptable. The juxtaposition of these two events illustrates this idea perfectly: There was never any prohibition against making up a bracha, Aharon felt it was needed, so, go right ahead, no problem; the law stated, however, that bringing a foreign ketoret (Chizkuni) having the wrong intention when bringing anything within the context of God’s service (Ramban) or defying the system’s rules (R. Hirsch) is not acceptable no matter what the ‘positive’ intention and therefore they had to be punished to demonstrate their corruption of this fundamental ideal.