After describing the first service of Aaron in the Mishkan, this week’s Torah portion relates to us the tragic death of his two sons Nadav and Avihu. The verses write, “And Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his pan, put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and they brought before the Lord foreign fire, which He had not commanded them. And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.” (Vayikra 10:1-2). The sin and punishment of these two sons of Aaron is among the most perplexing episodes in the Torah. The Zohar teaches that Nadav and Avihu were not simply two individuals of regular stature, but were extraordinarily righteous. “Nadav and Avihu by themselves were equal to the entire Sanhedrin (Seventy Elders) who received the Torah from Moses, and no one like these two men were found amongst the children of Israel.” (Zohar III Achari Mot 56) Because they died such a perplexing death, a number of questions arise: Firstly, what exactly was this foreign fire which they brought to the Alter, and secondly, why was this act worthy of such a strong punishment?
There are various explanations given by the Biblical commentators as to the specific nature of Nadav and Avihu’s sin of bringing the foreign fire. In his work the “Rashbam,” Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, the grandson of Rashi, explains that the sin and subsequent punishment was so severe because on this day they were explicitly commanded not to bring their own fire to the Alter. Why? Writes the Rashbam, “Since they were anticipating the descent of a heavenly fire; therefore the bringing of a different fire was not desired in order that God’s name should be sanctified and that all would know that the fire came from the heavens.” (ad loc) The bringing of the foreign fire resulted in a diminishing of God’s glory and served to detract from His revealed presence in the service of the Mishkan. This explanation resolves the surface level question as to what was the nature of their sin, however it does not yet explain why such great people were compelled to transgress such a clear Divine commandment.
Contrary to what one might assume, the Sifra explains that Nadav and Avihu had extremely noble intentions when bringing their own fire – they did so not out of a desire to undermine the will of God, but instead out of a strong yearning to come closer to God and to enhance the Divine service. “And Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his pan’- they, in their joy, since they saw a new fire [the heavenly fire], they came to add love to love.” (Sifra Shimini Parsha 1) Why then would this sincere desire to draw close to God be met with such terrible rejection? More importantly, what lesson can we learn from this tragic episode and these disastrous consequences for our times?
In answer to these questions, in his work “Torah Lights” Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the Chief Rabbi of Efrat, offers an enlightening explanation. He writes, “The Torah avoids telling us the specific motivation behind the “strange fire” in order to underscore that it doesn’t matter how laudable the purpose may be–if God didn’t command it, it’s forbidden. Ecstasy, even in the service of God, can become a disservice, turning the offering on its head; instead of expanding spirituality, it invites destruction…When people on the level of Nadav and Avihu fail to distinguish between divine will and human will, allowing their subjective understanding to take over, the punishment is instantaneous death. The rest of us may not call down divine fire each time we substitute our own will for the will of God; nonetheless, we should realize that confusing the two is playing with fire…” (Vayikra-Torah Lights pg 73-74) Nadav and Avihu — two of the most righteous men of their generation — allowed their unbridled joy and desire to serve God catapult them across the acceptable boundaries. For that transgression, the consequences were instantaneous and catastrophic. The message that we must take from this episode is that one must take care not to place their own personal and instinctive desires in serving God ahead of that which He explicitly commands.
In our day, God no longer speaks to us from the mouths of prophets, nor does He send fire down from heaven. However, He has given us a guidebook—the written Torah grounded in the national revelation of the commandments at Mount Sinai. In addition, He provided Moses with the Oral Law to clarify, elucidate, and interpret it into practical applications which has been transmitted from generation to generation throughout the ages – this transmission is most commonly referred to as Halacha—literally translated as “the way” — to guide us in our quest for drawing close to the Divine. In his work “Halakhic Man,” Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, one of the foremost Jewish thinkers of the 20th Century, explains meaning and purpose of the Halachik system as follows: “The halachah, which was given to us from Sinai, is the objectification of religion in clear and determined forms, in precise and authoritative laws, and in definite principles. It translates subjectivity into objectivity, the amorphous flow of religious experience into a fixed pattern of lawfulness.” (Halachic Man, pg. 59). Rav Soloveitchik further explains that such a system, in addition to gaining objectivity in the service of God, is also a necessity in restraining a person’s unbridled religious passion. He writes, “The Halakha sets down statutes and erects markers that serve as a dam against the surging, subjective current coursing through the universal homo religiosus, which, from time to time, in its raging turbulence sweeps away his entire being to obscure and inchoate realms.” (Halakhic Man, p. 59)
Elsewhere in his essay titled “Catharsis,” The Rav elaborates on this theme at length and explains that it is not always the passionate and dramatic action which makes a person come closer to the Divine, but rather it can be achieved through the simple and constant acceptance of the Divine will. Writes the Rav, “It is perhaps the central motif in our existential experience. It pervades the human mind steadily, and imparts to man a strange feeling of tranquillity. The heroic person, according to our view, does not succumb to frenzy or excitement. Biblical heroism is not ecstatic but rather contemplative; not loud but hushed; not dramatic or spectacular but mute. The individual, instead of undertaking heroic action sporadically, lives constantly as a hero.” (Tradition, Spring 1978, p. 42) Nadav and Avihu, two great men had such a passion and desire to draw close to God, however it was their own subjective desire in this quest that led to their downfall. They brought “foreign fire, which He had not commanded them,” i.e. they allowed their noble intentions to supersede their acceptance of the Divine command, and in this way diminished God’s glory in the world.
Through the internalization of this important ideal, may we all merit to fulfill the verse from the Shemona Esrei of Shabbat, “Satisfy us with Your goodness, may our souls rejoice in Your salvation, and purify our hearts to serve You in truth.”