Parshat Shemini 5779: What Was the Sin of Nadav and Avihu Meriting Punishment of Immediate Death by the Hand of Hashem?

Shalom Friends;

This week, our Parshat HaShevua for Parshat Shemini is being sponsored by Avraham and Miriam Deutsch of Efrat dedicated for the success and well-being of the Israel Defense Forces. To the Deutsch family, as always, many thanks for your continued kindnesses.

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Moshe Burt
skype: mark.burt3

Parshat Shemini 5779: What Was the Sin of Nadav and Avihu Meriting Punishment of Immediate Death by the Hand of Hashem?

by Moshe Burt

After learning in Parsha Tzav that for seven days, Moshe taught Aaron HaKohen and his sons the laws of their Avodah (the Kohanic Service, i.e. in the Tabernacle and later in the Beit HaMikdash — ” The Temple”) in the Mishkan, our Parsha Shemini begins by relating that on the eighth day, Aaron and his sons commenced their Avodah HaKodosh (Holy Service).

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin provides a context on this eighth day in his sefer “Unlocking the Torah Text”, Sefer Vayikra (page 53):

On this day they [Aaron and his sons] will publically assume the Kehunah, …the priestly role to be bequeathed, in perpetuity, to their descendants.

At Hashem’s command, the entire nation gathers at the entrance to the Mishkan to witness the rituals of initiation performed by Aaron and his sons. The investiture service reaches a …mounting climax as Aaron twice blesses the people (the second time in conjunction with Moshe) and a miraculous fire descends from the Heavens consuming the offerings on the Mizbeiyach.

But the interesting and ironic alignment of these two Parshiyot — Tzav and Shemini, one-after-the-other occur in a regular year with Pesach nestled beween them, seems to this author, to have deeper meaning, above and beyond mobilization and deployment (Tzav-Shemonah order calling reservists to active duty) in event of war.

In years with two Adars, Parshiyot Tzav and Shemini occur on consecutive Shabbosim.

The deeper meaning mentioned seems to relate to Aaron’s constancy and consistency of service over the succeeding forty years, of his humility, modesty and selflessness, his seriousness and relentlessness as on his very first day of service, as well his pursuit and performance of Mitzvot and guard over Am Yisrael and their connection to Hashem, to Torah and to their sanctity (consecration, purity, holiness).

Here, we return to Rabbi Shmuel Goldin with an excerpt from his Parshat Shemini summary (“Unlocking the Torah Text”, Sefer Vayikra, page 51 and page 53):

Aaron’s moment of personal triumph suddenly turns to wrenching tragedy as his two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer a “foreign fire” and are themselves consumed by Heavenly flames.

The Torah testifies: “And the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, took, each man, his censer; and they placed in them fire; and they placed in them fire; and they placed upon it incense; and they offered before Hashem a foreign fire which Hashem had not commanded them. And a fire came forth from before Hashem and it consumed them; and they died before Hashem.” (Sefer Vayikra, Perek 10, posukim 1-2 as rendered to English by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin in his sefer “Unlocking the Torah Text”)

Our Parsha thus relates the tragedy of the deaths of Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu who died while performing an unauthorized Service, offering a “strange fire …, which He did not command them…” (Artscroll Chumash, Vayikra, Perek 10, posuk 1)

Rabbi Goldin, in his sefer, “Unlocking the Torah Text”, on Sefer Vayikra brings a number of approaches appearing in various Rabbinic literature (pages 54-60):

Aaron’s sons died because they dared to determine law in the presence of their teacher, Moshe…[and] act contrary to Moshe’s instructions. (R’ Goldin citing Sefer Vayikra, Perek 1, posuk 7)

They enter[ed] the Mishkan in a drunken state. (R’ Goldin citing Midrash Rabbah Vayikra, Shemini 12:5) Support for this position can be derived from immediate subsequent passage where Hashem commands the Kohanim not to enter the [Mishkan, Beit Hamikdash] while drunk, on pain of death. (R’ Goldin citing Sefer Vayikra Perek 10, posukim 8-11, Midrash Rabbah Vayikra, Shemini 12:5)

They fail to confer with Moshe, Aaron or with each other. They each act independently precipitously. (R’ Goldin citing Torat Kohanim 10:1)

They long for the death[s] of Moshe and Aaron in anticipation of the moment when they will inherit the mantle of leadership. (R’ Goldin citing Midrash Rabbah Vayikra, Acharei Mot 20:10)

They refuse to marry because they feel that no woman is worthy of their exalted status (R’ Goldin citing Midrash Rabbah Vayikra, Acharei Mot Ibid) , [and thus] they [deliberately] fail to have children R’ Goldin citing Midrash Rabbah Vayikra, Acharei Mot 20:9)

Rabbi A. Henach Leibowitz, in his sefer “Majesty of Man” (page 181-182) cites the Yalkut Shimoni’s crucial observation about Nadav and Avihu and their failure to discuss and clarify among themselves the halachot regarding their offerings:

The Yalkut Shimoni points out (524:20) that they made this mistake [the unauthorized fire] because they did not consult Moshe. Furthermore… they were blamed because they did not consult with each other…. Why were they blamed for not consulting each other? If both Nadav and Avihu, the greatest men in Israel after Moshe and Aaron, both independently came to the same conclusion that this korbon [the “strange fire”] should be brought, why would asking each other make a difference?

Chazal are showing us the power of asking advice. Even if two equals… both feel the same way about a certain topic, talking it over may cause them to change their minds. By discussing a matter, the concepts involved become clarified.

Had Nadav and Avihu consulted each other, the ensuing discussion would have brought into question the halachic basis for the korbon and saved them from their fatal mistake.

Returning to Rabbi Goldin’s approaches appearing in various Rabbinic literature (pages 56-61):

Nadav and Avihu correctly understand that incense is specifically designed to counter the “fire” of Midat HaDin, Hashem’s seemingly harsh attribute of justice. They fail to realize, however that every offering in the Mishkan[Beit Hamikdash], including the incense, must be presented to a unified G’d. Judaism rejects not only the existence of multiple gods but also the possibility of multiple independent components of on G’d. The delineation of separate divine attributes is artificial, a device used by [our] tradition to assist limited man in understanding an unfathomable, seemingly contradictory Deity. All forces in the world, both those which appear to be “benevolent” as well as those which appear to us as “punishing,” emanate from the same Divine source. Hashem’s attributes do not operate — and, therefore, cannot be worshiped — independently of each other.

By placing the incense “on the fire,” by directing the incense specifically toward the “fire” of Hashem’s justice, the sons of Aaron challenge the pillar of our belief as Jews, the oneness of Hashem. (R’ Goldin citing Ramban {as interpreted by Racanti}, Sefer Vayikra Perek 10, posuk 1, Rabbeinu Bachya)

The investiture of the Kehunah launches… one of the primary ritual streams of the history of the Jews. Finally, with the Kehunah in place, the service of the Kohanim is ready to begin — a service that will serve as the centerpiece of our tefillah for centuries and as a paradigm of that tefillah for many more.

At this critical moment, in full view of the entire nation, Nadav and Avihu challenge the system. Dissatisfied with the investiture rites mandated by Hashem and communicated by Moshe, they decide to follow a ritualpath of their own design.

Had Nadav and Avihu been allowed to proceed unimpeded, ritual anarchy could well have resulted. At this most critical moment in the development of our traditions, the message conveyed to all present would have been: Creative ritual is completely acceptable; follow your hearts; the path towards Hashem can be designed by you. There is no need for uniformity of thought or practice as you individually search for spirituality in your lives.

Only an emphatic and immediate response from Hashem could salvage the moment and set the B’nei Yisrael firmly upon its… spiritual path…. The people had to be taught that one could not create new ritual at will. The challenge raised by Nadav and Avihu had to be answered in forceful fashion. At a critical moment in our history, Hashem’s emphatic actions preserve… ritual constancy… essential to the perpetuation of our tradition.

May we, the B’nei Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole — be totally restituted for all that was stolen from them and that the twice expelled families of Amona be restored to their rebuilt homes, at government expense; both due to alt-leftist-agendized, supreme court legalized Yassamnik gunpoint. May our dear brother Jonathan Pollard be liberated and truly free — only upon his return home to Israel, and that the MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem, as should the remains of the two chayalim from the Gaza War of four plus years ago. May we have the courage and strength to stand up and physically prevent the possibility of Chas V’Challila any future eviction of Jews from their homes and prevent Chas V’Challila the handing of Jewish land over to anyone, let alone to enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nai Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem Al’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bimhayrah b’yamainu — speedily, in our time”, — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!

Good Shabbos!
Moshe Burt, an Oleh, is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of The Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.