Fathers and Sons
Nadab and Abihu were rising stars. The two elder sons of Aaron were seen as doers — managing the new Tabernacle and preparing for its inauguration in what would mark the greatest day in human history. They had all the tools to ensure success — knowledge, speed and teamwork. They overshadowed their younger siblings and even their father and uncle, Moses.
So, how did everything turn tragic?
On the day of the Tabernacle’s inauguration, Nadab and Abihu decided that they would not wait for a heavenly fire to descend. There was too much to do; millions of people were waiting for the ceremony to proceed. Instead, they brought their own flame to burn the incense. Technically, this made sense and would have been the advice of any veteran manager — always prepare a backup.
But this wasn’t a stadium opening or a million-man march. This was G-d’s house, and He would provide the flame. When the divine flame came down, it killed Nadab and Abihu.
And Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, 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. [Leviticus 10: 1]
Fathers and sons have shaped history and the Israelites were no different. Moses and Aaron were devout and did everything G-d commanded. They didn’t demand creativity or their personal touch. They simply obeyed.
The sons were different. The Midrash says Nadab and Abihu were ambitious, perhaps justifiably. What seemed difficult for their fathers came easy to their sons. They didn’t have to ask the questions of their fathers.
But here’s what the sons lacked: They had little use for the faith and devotion of their fathers to G-d. And they were in a hurry. The Midrash says Nadab and Abihu would trail their fathers and ask each other: When are these two old guys going to die so we can take over?
Yaakov Sharett would have understood Nadab and Abihu. He is the son of Moshe Sharett, one of the founders of the State of Israel and its second prime minister. Being the son of an important Zionist politician was good for Yaakov. He served in the elite Palmach and then in Britain’s Jewish Brigade.
After Israel’s establishment, Yaakov found a job with the General Security Services, where he spied on political parties other than the ruling Mapai. He then served as an Israeli agent in the Soviet Union. Later, he wrote for Maariv and published his late father’s diary.
When the dust settled and Yaakov went into retirement, it turned out that he and his father had nothing in common. At 95, Yaakov told the Israeli daily Haaretz that his father had devoted his life to a racist regime.
“Israel was born in sin,” Yaakov said. “I’m collaborating with a criminal country,”
But the junior Sharett was far from the only one to break with his father. Virtually all of the sons of the leaders of the Irgun and Lehi, the Jewish underground, did the same. Their fathers were imprisoned, even tortured, for their fight against the British. Their sons, later known as “princes,” abandoned the faith of their fathers in the Land of Israel. They adopted the Western agenda of territorial withdrawal, secularism and globalism. It’s more fun when you’re feted in Paris than Tel Aviv.
Elijhu Wierzbolowski arrived in Palestine from Poland in 1936 and became a commander in the Irgun underground. He was arrested by the British and exiled to Africa. After the establishment of Israel, Wierzbolowski became a Knesset member of Herut, founded by his longtime colleague Menachem Begin — determined that the new state would protect Jewish refugees and rights.
Decades later, one of Wierzbolowski’s children, Dan Meridor, became justice minister and signed the order to extradite a Jewish couple to the United States to face murder charges. The couple had already undergone a mistrial in California and argued that this would violate the principle of double jeopardy. Wierzbolowski was no longer alive to advise his son. Begin, whom Meridor had served as Cabinet secretary, was also gone.
In the end, both Robert and Rochelle Manning were taken into custody. Rochelle died in an Israeli prison before her extradition. Robert, now over 70, has been in a federal facility in Phoenix for nearly 30 years. Today, Meridor has become a leading opponent of judicial reform in Israel.
The Torah’s answer in wake of the tragedy of Nadab and Abihu is humility. G-d tells Aaron that nobody who serves Him can be intoxicated. There is no evidence in the Torah that Nadab and Abihu drank wine or spirits before they inaugurated the Tabernacle.
Perhaps the Torah also means that those who serve G-d must leave their egos and ambitions at the door. Regardless of ability, the sons must emulate their fathers and mothers who express their devotion simply and without fanfare. There is no contest for being G-d’s favorite technocrat. Indeed, Nadab and Abihu were replaced by their younger brothers — Elazar and Itamar. No, they didn’t have the flash of their late siblings. But they were honest, reliable and faithful. That was enough for G-d.
Do not drink wine that will lead to intoxication, neither you nor your sons with you, when you go into the Tent of Meeting, so that you shall not die. [This is] an eternal statute for your generations, [Leviticus 10: 9]