Fervent fire: Parashat Shmini

Nadav and Avihu were true servants of Hashem, writes the Sefas Emes. A true servant intuits the will and needs of his master even before being told. They did not understand that they need to wait for Hashem’s command.

Rabbanit Shira Smiles

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Shiur adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

The long anticipated day of the dedication of the Mishkan/Tabernacle had arrived. The entire nation was attuned to the spirituality of the day and eagerly awaited God’s command to bring the offerings and seeing God’s fire descending to consume these offerings. Then tragedy struck. Aharon’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, were so infused with their passion that they put fire and incense as an offering on the altar before being commanded to do so. Hashem immediately killed them for this infraction.

How could such righteous men come to this end? What was their motivation, and how was Hashem’s response appropriate? 

While many commentators say that Nadav and Avihu entered the kadosh kodoshim/Holy of Holies when not even their father Aharon could so enter without Hashem’s command, nor the kohain gadol on any day other than on Yom Kippur, Nadav and Avihu were so imbued with the prospect of returning Hashem’s love that they rushed to offer their incense. However, Rashbam disagrees. He opines that Nadav and Avihu acted on another point. They knew that the incense offering was meant to be offered on a daily basis. Since it had not yet been offered, Nadav and Avihu took it as their cue to bring the offering, not realizing that they needed to wait for Hashem’s explicit command for this first offering.

Aside from the technical aspect of how they brought their sacrifice, Chazal add many other “infractions” that the two committed.  Among these are: being intoxicated while doing the service, not getting married, not wearing the correct priestly garments.  Further, the Midrash notes, that they would walk behind Moshe and Ahron, wondering when they would die, so that they could become the new leaders.

The Ner Uziel cites Rashi’s two explanations of the sin of Nadav and Avihu [being intoxicated, and not consulting with Moshe Rabbenu before offering the fire] and asks why we need to find the sin when the Torah itself testifies that they brought a “strange fire” that Hashem had not commanded. Therefore, the rationalizations our commentators offer must serve a purpose to reconcile their motivation with the consequence of their deaths, since the next verse implies that Nadav and Avihu had reached an even greater plane of spirituality than Moshe himself: “I will be sanctified through those who are nearest to Me, thus will I be honored before the entire people...”

In Emes LeYaakov, Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky z”l writes that underlying all the sins our commentators list as the infractions of Nadav and Avihu lay a tinge of arrogance. That arrogance led Nadav and Avihu to feel that perhaps they could be greater than Moshe and Aharon, that no woman was good enough for them to marry, and this arrogance was revealed when they drank wine. It bought them to rush forward with their firepans and be first to offer the incense. Connected to this arrogance was a sense of independence. As rabbi Grosbard  z”lwrites in Daas Shrage, their attitude was to do it my way, and so they didn’t wait for instructions and Hashem’s command.

Ner Uziel continues to explore the connection between Nadav and Avihu’s actions, their death, and Hashem calling them “those nearest Me”. Within this context, the Ner Uziel quotes the Netziv who explains that their death was not a result of sin, but rather a result of the spiritual fire within them that created a disconnect between their body and their soul, a disconnect that was too strong for their bodies to withstand. The zealous fire within them that sought a closer connection to Hakodosh Boruch Hu sometimes pushed them beyond what was appropriate, rushing to answer questions before their Rebbe Moshe answered.  Further, when they went up  part of Har Sinai at the Revelation while eating and drinking, (and the Torah attests that God did not “unleash His power against” them then), drinking at this exalted moment to heighten the spiritual experience. It was this internal fire before God that killed them, that separated the bonds between body and soul.

To emphasize this idea, the Sifsei Chaim notes that the “trop”/cantillation under the word lo, no, is  a mercha cefula,  a double pause or comma, reminding us that even if what we seek is connection to the Divine, the purpose of ketoret and the etymology of the word, one must pause to consider if what one is contemplating dong falls within the parameters of God’s will rather than serving our personal will. Passion can distort that line.

Korach made a similar mistake, notes Rabbi Miller , z”l,. Korach also wanted to be closer to Hakodosh Boruch Hu, but his desire was based on ego and precluded all other considerations, including Hashem’s already proclaimed leadership roles. Spiritual passion is important, but it must always be subject to God’s will and never come at the expense of others.

Nadav and Avihu, on the spiritual level they were at, understood what needed to be done, that the ketoret offering needed to be brought, but because they did not ask Moshe first, they brought it too early, not waiting for the actual command, explains Rabbi Goldwicht z”l.

Continuing this thought process, Rabbi Goldwicht z”l explains that there are two categories of mitzvoth, logical mitzvoth that we could intuit on our own, such as the prohibitions of murder and theft or performing acts of chesed, and mitzvoth that we do not understand, like listening to the shofar, donning talit and tefillin, not wearing shatnes, but we observe them because we heard them as commands from God at Sinai. The challenge is to observe even the logical and social mitzvoth not because they give us a warm, fuzzy feeling, but because they are commanded by God. The “warm fuzzies” should be secondary to the desire to fulfill God’s will. When we do an act of chesed and recognize that this is God’s will, we are investing a spiritual component in our actions. Otherwise, we may fall into the same trap as Nadav and Avihu.

In other words, continues Rabbi Goldwicht z”l in Asufat Ma’arachot, Nadav and Avihu understood from their own logical and emotional perspective what was proper to do. But they were doing it from that perspective, from the “strange fire” within themselves that they failed to restrain, rather than waiting for Hashem’s command.

Nadav and Avihu were true servants of Hashem, writes the Sefas Emes. A true servant intuits the will and needs of his master even before being told. This was the level Bnei Yisroel had reached at Har Sinai when they proclaimed naaseh/we will do even before nishma/we will hear. When Bnei Yisroel sinned with the golden calf, they descended from this high level and now needed to wait for Hashem’s instructions before offering the ketoret or other such mitzvoth. Nadav and Avihu were from the tribe of Levi who had not participated in this sin. They hoped to regain that lofty level even with a small group. They did not understand that the time was not yet right, and they would need to wait for Hashem’s command. Because their death was indirectly attributable to the sin of the golden calf and the fall of Bnei Yisroel from that lofty level, the entire nation had to mourn their deaths.

In Chayei Moshe Rabbi Bick extends this line of reasoning. Nadav and Avihu thought the optimum service was to do, naaseh, whatever one could intuit on one’s own, and then wait for further instructions, for the nishma. In contrast, Moshe instructed that you do whatever has already been commanded and then you wait for further instructions. This hairsbreadth of a difference led to their downfall and also explains why the Gemarrah Bava Kama says, “Greater is the one commanded [to do a mitzvah] and fulfills than one who is not commanded and fulfills.” When one fulfills a mitzvah of his own accord there is less resistance than when one is obeying a command [even when your will and the command are in sync]. Nadav and Avihu lacked that discipline to wait. Because they brought it from their own intuition and desire, they drank wine as the symbol of their joy. The joy of doing a mitzvah should come from the knowledge that you are doing Hashem’s command rather than from doing what you perceive to be Hashem’s will.

Nadav and Avihu thought that since the Mishkan was built, Hashem had forgiven Bnei Yisroel and the yetzer horo had been destroyed, making it no more challenging to do Hashem’s will after being commanded than doing the mitzvah on your own. Therefore, writes the Shvilei Pinchas, now intuiting Hashem’s will and performing the mitzvah before being commanded would be the higher level. In this context, Nadav and Avihu drank wine as part of the repair for the original sin of Adam, a repair that was initially made with Bnei Yisroel’s acceptance of the Torah.

What was Adam’s sin? According to some of our sages, the forbidden fruit was grapes, and Adam sinned by drinking wine before its time. [Our sages comment that had Adam waited just a few more hours, he would have been commanded to drink wine as part of sanctifying Shabbat. CKS] Since Adam sinned with wine, Nadav and Avihu were expecting to repair Adam’s sin by drinking wine at the dedication of the repaired world. With the erection of the Mishkan, they felt they had gained atonement and had again reached the state of the world before Adam’s sin. They felt they were rectifying Adam’s sin and hoped to lead the world into its final, perfected stage until the end of days.

The Shvilei Pinchas notes that some have a custom responding, “L’Chaim” during Kiddush. The one reciting the Kiddush will preface the Brachah over the wind with, “Savri meronon...”, to which those responding will interject, “L’Chaim.” Since Adam introduced death to the world by not waiting for Hashem’s permission to drink wine, now that we are using wine for the appropriate mitzvah, we are acknowledging its proper place, for life.

The Shvilei Pinchas continues that the death of Nadav and Avihu was not a punishment, but a consequence of their passion that caused their soul to depart, for they were not yet on that level of that future time. There is a quasi promise in the Torah that if you do the mitzvoth with passion, you will live through them. Nadav and Avihu felt they had achieved that level when death would be erased, and therefore they were not in danger. But, although we should do all mitzvoth with passion, our motivation should be God’s command. That we are able to execute God’s command should be the source of our joy. That was the joy of the original Purim when Bnei Yisroel recommitted to accepting the Torah, and that should be the joy we channel to all the mitzvoth, to feel the rejuvenation Pesach should inspire.

There are times when Hashem does not control the world through the protocols of sin and punishment or through the laws of cause and effect, but rather through predetermination, writes Rabbi Rivlin based on the teachings of the Alshich Hakadosh. Moshe knew that someone was destined to die at the consecration of the Mishkan, but he didn’t know who. That Nadav and Avihu brought a strange fire was the excuse for their deaths, not the real reason. We do not know the reason except that Hashem wanted them to die on this day. All the sins our Sages attribute to them are also mere rationalizations, and we can never know Hashem’s true purpose. When such a kadoshis brought to heaven, there is great rejoicing in the upper spheres. That’s why the yahrtzeit of a tzadik is referred to as Hillulah, a day of praise and uplifting.

Unfortunately, our history is full of too many holy souls taken from us in the performance of mitzvoth. The latest of these (and may he be the last) is Rabbi Boruch Ettinger, a father of twelve, who, hearing gunshots behind him, turned his car around hoping to save others. He, like Ari Fuld just a few months earlier, was taken by Hashem as he rushed passionately into the line of fire. We don’t see the larger picture. We hope that these korbanot/sacrifices, like Nadav and Avihu, will bring us closer to the day when the yetzer horowill be destroyed and all our service to Hashem will be besimcha, with passionate joy.