Nadav and Avihu and the Power of Ketoret

DR . Joseph Frager, ,

DR . Joseph Frager,
DR . Joseph Frager,
Courtesy of Dr. Frager

"Hashem spoke to Moshe after the death of Aaron's two sons, when they approached before Hashem and they died."(16:1)

"He shall place the incense upon the fire before Hashem-so that the cloud of the incense shall blanket the Ark-cover that is atop the [Tablets of the] Testimony-so that he shall not die."(16:13)

I would like to delve into the death of Nadav and Avihu to some degree and discuss the power of the Ketoret( incense). The death of two great Tzaddikim on one of the All-Time greatest days the world has ever known, the dedication of the Mishkan on the first of Nisan is analyzed from every angle. Rashi in four places addresses the reason(s) behind the death of Aaron's two son's four different ways.

In Parshat Shemini (10:2) Rashi brings down 1) R' Eliezer who says they were guilty of Paskening Halacha without consulting or deferring to Moshe. 2) R' Yishmael who says they entered the Mikdash drunk. In Shemot (24:9) Rashi says that at the moment of Matan Torah, Nadav and Avihu gazed at G-d's Schechina in a haughty way while indulging in food and drink and were deserving of death then. In Devarim (9:20) Rashi explains that Moshe's Tephilla on behalf of Aaron for his sin of the Golden Calf was only partially accepted.

The fourth time Rashi in Parsht Shemini (10:3) writes that Moshe consoled Aaron that it is finally clear what Hashem had in mind when he said "V'Nikdash B'Kvodi" (Shemot 29:43)- that the Mishkan will be sanctified through the death of those beloved of the Omnipresent. He was referring to Nadav and Avihu. All of Rashi's explanations apply and help clarify a very difficult situation. However, it is still difficult to understand in retrospect, the motivation of these two great Tzaddikim.

They were on the highest level hence they were called "beloved" by G-d himself. They were obviously trying to become even more beloved in G-d's eyes, trying to raise the level of sanctity of the Mishkan's inauguration, and helping the Jewish People. Perhaps, they thought they could bring even more sanctity to the Chanukat HaMishkan than even their Father because they were not part of the Golden Calf episode. They were pure without blemish.

Perhaps, they were trying to bring the level of the Inauguration to the level of the Gilui Schechina that hey had witnessed at the time of Matan Torah. I have mentioned a number of times that the Mishkan was a re-enactment of Har Sinai and the Har Sinai experience. Nadav and Avihu perhaps wanted the re-enactment to be on the same level as Har Sinai. They were trying to reach that level of Spirituality that they were privileged to have experienced themselves at the time of Matan Torah. R. Raphael Sorotzkin and the Maharal in Gur Aryeh offer similar ideas.

Rashi in Shemot (24:9) says they had gazed at Hashem's Schechina on Har Sinai and were guilty of the death penalty then because they indulged in food and drink. It is not clear if they knew they did wrong at that time. This may be the reason they entered the Mishkan after imbibing (according to R' Yishmael above). Of course had they asked Moshe Rabeinu if they were allowed to do this, things would have been different. As I stated above, they did not ask, according to R' Eliezer. It is without question that their intentions were pure and on the highest level but they were guilty of offering an "Aish Zarah"(a strange fire). The Ramban says that after the death of Nadav and Avihu, the Jewish People mistakenly blamed the incense service as the cause.

In Parshat Acharei Mot this notion is corrected and the incense service is shown not to be dangerous but in point of fact protective (16:2) and enabled the entire Yom Kippur service including Aaron entering the area of the Ark. This highlights the power of the Ketoret (Incense). Nadav and Avihu knew fully well the power of the Ketoret but brought it in an inappropriate manner. It is clear that the Ketoret bring the highest level of Kedusha and are the last step in bringing the Schechina into the Mishkan. What is so special about the Ketoret? The answer lies in a famous Bnei Yissachar in the name of the Arizal. The Bnei Yissachar says that the only sense of the five senses that did not sin at the time of Adam and Chava was the sense of smell.

The sense of smell did not participate in the sin that exiled mankind from the Garden of Eden. It alone remained pure. In Breishit (2:7) "G-d formed man out of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils a soul-breath of life (Nishmat Chaim). Man then became a living creature ( Nefesh Chaya )" which indicates that the organ of smell is the entry point for G-d's essence-our Souls. Now we can understand the power of the Ketoret which represents both Ruach(Soul) and Raiach(smell). The Ketoret which is composed of 11 spices brings Ruach through Raiach. The Schechina descends because the sense of smell is pure and non-defiled.

This is the secret of the Ketoret. The Gematria based upon Rashi Bamidbar (7:20) for Ketoret is 613 which is the number of Mitzvot in the Torah (this requires the "kuf" of the the word "Ketoret" replaced by the letter "Dalet" using the At-Bash system. So the Ketoret represents the whole Torah as well.

Nadav and Avihu knew the power and secrets of the Ketoret but unfortunately did not follow proper procedure. May the Ketoret once again be used in the proper manner so that G-d will once again reside among us as in days of old in his Holy of Holies. Shabbat Shalom. Dedicated in memory to my beloved Father Mordechai Avraham ben Shmuel Z'L