By Rabbi Yaakov
Identifying the Sin
sons, Nadav and Avihu, took (each man) his censer, and put fire in them, and put
incense on it, and offered strange fire before Hashem, which He had not
commanded them." (10:1)
At the climax of the Mishkan's
dedication ceremony, with the long awaited re-appearance of the Shechina
(Divine Presence) over the people, tragedy rears its head. Fire, the very same fire that just heralded
the return of the Divine, strikes down the two most promising leaders of the
next generation, Nadav and Avihu.
And fire came
forth from before Hashem and consumed the Olah sacrifice … and the people saw
and were joyful and fell on their faces … (9:24)
And fire came
forth from before Hashem and consumed them, and they died before Hashem …
While clearly Nadav and Avihu
sinned, what precisely did they do wrong?
Enigmatically, the Torah does not clarify their sin. The commentators are forced to decipher the
nature of their transgression through a close reading of the hidden textual
clues. Rashi culls two suggestions from
the Midrash: either Nadav and Avihu
rendered Halachic decisions improperly, without consulting their teachers Moshe
and Aharon, or they entered the Mishkan while intoxicated. There are textual allusions to both
approaches. The Torah emphasizes repeatedly
in Chapter 9 that all of the actions and steps of the dedication ceremony were
undertaken exactly "as Moshe had commanded" (9:5, 6, 10, 21), a
statement notably absent when describing the actions of Nadav and Avihu. Following the removal of the bodies from the
Mishkan and the outlining of the mourning procedures that Aharon has to follow,
Hashem tells Aharon: "'Drink no wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy sons
with thee, when ye go into the tent of meeting, that ye die not; it shall be a
statute forever throughout your generations. (10:9)".
In contrast, the Seforno
maintains that the sin is identified in the literal sense of the immediate
text. He argues that Nadav and Avihu
offered incense, which they had not been commanded to do. We can suggest that this approach follows in
the footsteps of the Midrashic contention that they made Halachic decisions
improperly, without consulting with Moshe and Aharon. Similarly, the Rashbam also follows the
literal understanding of the text, and argues that the "fire" was the
heart of the crime. Alluding to the
Talmudic ruling that "even though fire comes down on the altar from
heaven, it is a mitzvah to bring fire from human sources … (Yoma 21b)",
the Rashbam suggests that "it was the wrong day to bring human fire,
because Moshe wanted to publicly sanctify the Name of heaven, as the fire was
miraculously sent down from Heaven".
The Ramban explains the sin of
Nadav and Avihu as follows:
incense on the fire' – as the Torah has stated, 'they shall place incense
for Your anger' (Devarim 33:10, see the Ramban to Shemot 30:1), and they
director their attention only to this.(commentary to 10:1)
How does this comment explain the
nature of their sin? The Rabbeinu Bachya
explains that they only followed Hashem's middat ha-din (His attribute
of justice), and they ignored his middat ha-rachamim (attribute of
mercy). To understand these mystical
allusions, we must look again at the text and the context of their offerings.
Occasionally, we have a tendency
to separate the account of Nadav and Avihu's sin from the preceding description
of the Mishkan's dedication ceremony.
However, while the Gentile chapter division supports such a reading, a
look at any Torah scroll reveals that the text treats our story and the
previous as one undivided narrative.
Reading the Torah's description of the dedication ceremony and Aharon's
initiation into the Divine service as Kohen Gadol, we are struck by the sense
of urgency conveyed within the text:
lifted up his hands toward the people, and blessed them; and he came down from
offering the sin-offering, and the burnt-offering, and the peace-offerings.
Moses and Aaron went into the tent of meeting, and came out, and blessed the
people; and the glory of the LORD appeared unto all the people. (9:22-23)
The Torah describes the
offerings, Aharon's blessing the people, the re-entry into the Ohel Moed, and
their unexplained reemergence to bless the people for what appears to be a
superfluous second time. Only then does
Hashem finally appear. The Midrash
echoed by Rashi explains the events as follows:
Each of the
seven days (of the consecration), Moshe assembled the Mishkan, served in it,
and then took it apart again – but the Shechina never appeared.
The people were
horrified. They said to Moshe, "We extended
all this effort, hoping that the Shechina would dwell among us, signifying that
Hashem has finally forgiven us for the sin of the Golden Calf – yet it has been
all for not!" Moshe responded,
"When Aharon my brother, who is more worthy and deserving will serve, than
the Shechina will appear …"
But, on the
eight day, Aharon saw that all of the offerings were completed, and yet, the
Shechina still did not appear. He became
dejected and thought, "It's all because of me (and my role in the sin of
the Golden Calf) that the Shechina will not dwell among Israel!"
Aharon said to
Moshe, "My brother – look what you've done to me!! I went in, and now I am humiliated!!"
straightaway entered with him into the Mishkan to entreat Hashem for mercy, and
at last, the Shechina came down to dwell among the people. (Rashi 9:23, based on the Sifa, Shemini,
Suddenly, the behavior of Nadav
and Avihu acquires an entirely different complexion. Their transgression, the acceptance of the
Divine judgment, becomes almost cruel.
When faced with apparent Divine harshness and absence, two approaches
existed before the leaders of the people.
Nadav and Avihu note the impact of G-d's justice, and immediate make
peace with it. If the people are
unworthy, whether due to the sin of the Golden Calf or for other reasons, then
so be it. All that can be done is to
offer incense – to accept the severity of the Divine decree. Moshe and Aharon, however, refuse to admit
defeat. They pray, they bless the
people, the bring offerings. All their
frantic activity was to serve one purpose only – to demand mercy from Hashem,
and a public renewal of the closeness that once characterized Hashem's
relationship with his people.
At times, in the role of private
individuals facing irrevocable tragedy, the approach of Nadav and Avihu is the
appropriate one (see Aharon's silent acceptance of the tragedy that befell him
with their deaths). However, the role of
the leader of the people is not to accept or justify their suffering. The leader must serve as their vocal advocate
– in the spirit of Moshe Rabbeinu's demand that either the people are to be
forgiven, or "erase me from Your book!" When people suffer, complacency and
acceptance are acts of cruelty, and do not belong in Hashem's Sanctuary.