How glorious, Itamar thought to himself. This is the height of my existence. To bring a sacrifice before God, with my brothers and father. And to be attended by none other than my uncle Moses himself! But I must concentrate now.
Itamar, together with his brothers, Nadav, Avihu, and Elazar, and their father Aaron, leaned on the sacrificial ram. Moses stood nearby. Nadav was the oldest of the four siblings – Itamar the youngest. All of them wore their brand new priestly garments and served barefoot in the Sanctuary courtyard. Aaron and his four sons each placed their hands on the ram’s head. They all closed their eyes in concentration and prayer. The air above their hands shimmered like a false vision of an oasis. Moses nodded in approval. A murmur rose from the vast assembly on the desert plain outside the walls of the Sanctuary. Hundreds of thousands of the Children of Israel surrounded the Sanctuary. Their attention was riveted on the sacrifice that Moses would be servicing for Aaron and his four sons.
At exactly the same time, Aaron and the four brothers opened their eyes. As one, they removed their hands from the ram. There was a gasp by the Israelites closest to the Sanctuary, awed by the unity of motion.
I must maintain my connection to the ram and to my family, Itamar said in his mind. We are consecrating our family, our line, for eternity. I will stand shoulder to shoulder with my brothers in this great honor.
Aaron and his sons lowered the ram to one of the rings on the ground. Nadav clamped the ring around the ram’s neck. Moses approached with a long knife in one hand and a large vessel in the other. He knelt on one knee and placed the vessel down on the floor next to the ram’s neck. Moses then grabbed the ram’s head with his now free hand. He closed his eyes. The shimmering glow that had been over the ram’s head moved towards Moses and was absorbed into his body.
Moses then slit the ram’s neck. He quickly placed the knife on the floor, away from the spurting blood, picked up the vessel and collected the blood flowing from the ram’s neck. When the vessel was full, Moses stood up and walked with the vessel to the altar.
“Did you see that glow over the ram?” Itamar whispered to Nadav and Avihu who were standing closest to him.
“Why are you so surprised, little brother?” Nadav said. “Avihu and I have seen the very manifestation of God. Some spiritual ether is a small matter compared to that.”
“Yes,” Itamar said in a louder whisper, “but we created this! By focusing our wills together we have consecrated this animal and our lineage for generations!”
“You would be surprised by what man is capable of doing with the power of his will and his intellect. You are beginning to gain wisdom, little brother.”
Moses poured the blood from the vessel around the altar and then returned to the ram. Elazar handed Moses a new knife, and Moses proceeded to cut the ram into large sections.
“That will be our task,” Itamar said excitedly to Nadav. “To slaughter, cut and offer the sacrifices of others.”
“Why do you need to state the obvious?” Nadav retorted. “Of course that is our task, though I have spoken with Avihu about introducing some innovations of our own.” Avihu nodded in silent agreement.
“Quiet,” Aaron shushed, not quite within earshot of his sons’ discussion. Aaron, standing closer to Moses with Elazar, returned his attention to Moses, who was now washing the innards of the ram.
“What do you mean, making innovations?” Itamar covered his mouth and whispered.
“Because you choose to waste time with your wife,” Nadav said quietly, “you do not have the time or the capacity to understand the deeper truths of divine service.” Avihu again nodded silently.
“Deeper truths?” Itamar asked. “How do you reach deeper truths?”
“Wine helps,” Avihu interjected.
“Really?” Itamar asked. “Somehow that does not seem appropriate given our new role.”
“What do you know of appropriate, little one?” Nadav asked.
Moses carried the portions of meat up the ramp of the altar and threw them into the flames of the blazing fire.
What is wrong with Nadav? Itamar thought. When did he become so prideful? He seems unmoved by this ceremony. Something is not right.
Moses brought another ram to Aaron and his sons.
I know the process with this ram is to be both different and unique, Itamar thought as his family congregated around the new ram. Instead of placing the blood only on the altar, Moses will place the blood directly on us as well, linking us to both God and the altar.
Itamar, together with his siblings and father, surrounded the ram. They leaned on the ram as they had before. Each of them placed both hands on the ram’s head and closed their eyes in concentration.
I must focus, Itamar thought. We are unified. We are negating ourselves before God. We are merely vessels to perform His service. But wait! Something is wrong. I do not feel my brothers as I did before.
Aaron and his sons opened their eyes out of order with each other. They lifted their hands off the ram’s head in no particular order. Itamar looked above the ram’s head. There was no shimmering glow. Itamar heard a murmur from the assembly outside the Sanctuary.
Moses looked around with a slight grimace on his face. Aaron scrutinized each of his sons.
Moses knelt on one knee, put one hand on the ram’s head and closed his eyes. He knelt for a longer time than previously, facing downward in concentration. A slight shimmering glow appeared above his head, only to quickly disappear. With a light sigh, Moses took the long knife proffered by Aaron and slaughtered the ram. He then took a new vessel and caught the spurting blood.
Moses stood up with the vessel in his left hand and approached Aaron. He dipped his right hand into the vessel until his fingertips were wet with the ram’s blood. He then proceeded to place blood on the right earlobe of Aaron’s ear, on Aaron’s right thumb and finally on the big toe of Aaron’s right foot. Moses repeated the process with Nadav, Avihu, Elazar and Itamar, placing blood on the earlobe, thumb and big toe of each priest.
We must listen to the word of God, Itamar thought as Moses applied the blood to his ear. We must do only His work with the strength of our hands, he thought as Moses placed the blood on his thumb. We must run to His service in everything we do, he concluded as Moses applied the blood to his big toe.
The five new priests of God stood in a line before Moses. The blood on Aaron, Elazar and Itamar’s ears, thumbs and toes dried quickly. The blood on Nadav and Avihu remained wet. A drop of blood from both Nadav and Avihu’s earlobes gently rolled down their neck. Suddenly, a cool breeze swept over the Sanctuary courtyard and carried the blood drops across their necks, leaving a thin red line.
Itamar saw the red lines crossing Nadav and Avihu’s necks. He saw that Moses noticed the blood lines as well. He then saw two tears quietly roll down his uncle’s face.
* * * * * *
18 And the ram of the burnt-offering was presented; and Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the head of the ram. 19 And when it was killed, Moses dashed the blood against the altar round about. 20 And when the ram was cut into its pieces, Moses made the head, and the pieces, and the suet smoke. 21 And when the inwards and the legs were washed with water, Moses made the whole ram smoke upon the altar; it was a burnt-offering for a sweet savor; it was an offering made by fire unto the Lord; as the Lord commanded Moses. 22 And the other ram was presented, the ram of consecration, and Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the head of the ram. 23 And when it was slain, Moses took of the blood thereof, and put it upon the tip of Aaron’s right ear, and upon the thumb of his right hand, and upon the great toe of his right foot. 24 And Aaron’s sons were brought, and Moses put of the blood upon the tip of their right ear, and upon the thumb of their right hand, and upon the great toe of their right foot;
Vayikra Rabbah 20:10
Nadav and Avihu were not married because of their haughtiness. Many women did not marry in the hope of marrying Nadav or Avihu, but they said, “Our uncle Moses is the greatest leader, our uncle Nachshon, is the prince of the Tribe of Judah, our father, Aaron, is the high priest, and we are associate high priests. What women would be satisfatory for us?”
At Mount Sinai, Nadav and Avihu had already secured their death warrants. “…and they beheld God, and did eat and drink” (Exodus 24:11): they stared at the Presence of God like one who ogles at another whilst partaking of food and drink. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said “If I were to kill them now, I would upset the happiness of My children.”
Moses and Aaron were walking together, and Nadav and Avihu were close behind them. Nadav said to Avihu, “When will those two aged men pass away, so that we can govern the generation?” The Holy One, Blessed be He, replied to them, “We shall see who will lay whom to rest.”
Nadav and Avihu were drunk before bringing the ‘strange fire’ to the altar. I don’t recall the exact source.
With great trepidation I dared to write negatively about Nadav and Avihu, who are otherwise referred to as tremendously righteous individuals of the highest levels, except for the midrashim (above and a few others) that state their faults (“…God is exacting with the righteous…”).
Part of the inspiration for this story was not strictly textual, but is actually based on my own interpretation (I haven’t seen any others on this) of an unusual cantilation sign. In the Torah reading about the sacrifice I describe as problematic, there is a rare musical note that is used called the “shalshelet” (see “Vayishchat”, Leviticus 8:23). The note is an uncommonly long note that goes ‘up and down’ (don’t know what the musical term is) three times. In the few other cases where it is used, it seems to indicate some extreme internal struggle, some dissonance by the protagonist – hence my projecting such dissonance to the sacrifice. This is besides trying to give some background and foreshadowing to Nadav who suffers, along with Avihu, of a sudden, divine and very public death a week after this initial sacrifice.