Parshat Shmini opens with the culmination of the dedication of Aharon and his sons to priestly service. The tragic episode of the death of Aharon’s oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, who attempted to serve God with “strange fire”, follows immediately afterwards: “And the sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, took each of them his fire-pan and put fire in it and placed incense upon it and brought forth alien fire before the Lord, which He had not charged them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.” (Leviticus 10:1-2) The rationale for their death remains an enigma since it is never spelled out in the Torah, leaving it to the sages to both speculate as to its cause and to use this tragedy as a didactic opportunity to teach life lessons.
There are two midrashic explanations for this tragedy which are most widely known. Rabbi Eliezer, a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva, claimed that the sin of Aharon’s son involved their usurping Moshe’s authority as the nation’s religious and legal decisor by making an unauthorized offering before God. (See Eruvin 63a) The other explanation, based on the juxtaposition of the law prohibiting service in the Sanctuary while inebriated immediately after this episode, presumes that that was their sin. (See Vayikra Rabbah 12) Both of these accounts attempt to explain this tragic event by assigning definitive offences to Aharon’s sons.
The Sifra, a midrashic work on the book of Leviticus from the period of the Mishnah, on the other hand, offers a different, religiously provocative explanation: “And the two sons of Aharon, were also involved in rejoicing, for when they saw the new fire [from the inaugural sacrifices], they wanted to add love on top of the love (namely, out of their enthusiasm, they wanted to add an additional gifts to God), so ‘they took’ [their strange fire] and this ‘taking’ can only refer to ‘the rejoicing of Nadav and Avihu’” (adapted from Sifra Shmini 3 Parshata 1:32)
Aharon and his sons had just been inaugurated into service as priests with all of its fanfare and sacrificial offerings. As Moshe and Aharon came forth from the Tent of Meeting, they blessed the people and the glory of God appeared for all to see. The people shouted with joy and prostrated themselves. (See Leviticus 9:23-4) According to this midrash, Aharon’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu became caught up in the spirit of the moment and in their enthusiasm and zeal for service to God did something unwarranted and brought tragedy upon themselves.
This version of the story leaves us theologically tortured because the tragedy does not seem to match the deed. How could Nadav and Avihu’s religious enthusiasm have possibly been answered in this manner? Perhaps the lesson of this episode is found in this very question. Sometimes events do not mesh with our expectations and we must learn to live with the results despite the apparent dissonance. In fact, Aharon’s response to this tragedy seems to indicate that he himself had come to this realization: “And Aharon was silent.” (Leviticus 10:3)
This answer seems unsatisfactory. Still, the alternative is much worse. Are we to sink into emptiness when things go wrong or allow pessimism to conquer us or worse yet to eternally deny God and to assume that the world that we live in is a bad place? The Jewish answer to this question is to remain a believer, to counter the bad with a sense of optimism and to persevere. This is not easy but the alternative, to be life denying is not Jewishly tenable. Aharon apparently understood this. We must too.
Dedicated to the memory of Orly Sheffey z”l