Our religious literature always describes God as “El Rachum v’Chanun”… A God of Mercy and Justice. There are thousands of ways in that sacred literature which clearly relate the ways in which God has shown both mercy and justice, but much fewer references to what might be called “injustices”.
One of those has always upset and troubled me. I want to know God but it is not possible. To know God is to be God.
Parshat Shemini in the Book of Vayikra (Leviticus) records the events. It occurred on the eighth day of the consecration and dedication of the Holy Tabernacle. Aaron, brother of Moses and the first Kohen Gadol (High Priest) , together with his two priestly sons, Nadab and Abihu, were to be consecrated as the only ones who could serve in the Holy Tabernacle’s environment.
It was a day of great celebration. Thousands of people had gathered. The sacrificial animals which the Hebrews had offered had already been prepared and Aaron and his two sons attended the great ceremony.
A fire came down from heaven and consumed the offerings which had been placed on the Alter. And when all the people saw that their offerings had been accepted by God, they sang and danced and rejoiced.
It was a momentous moment for Aaron and now, for the very first time he raised up his hands and he blessed the thousands who had gathered there for the ceremony. That very same blessing is recited today in Orthodox synagogues around the world on Sabbaths and festivals by members of the priestly class, who can claim that they are descendants of Aaron. (I am not one of them, just a common Israelite).
Then, Numbers chapter 10, verses 1 and 2, describe the very tragic events which followed.
Nadab and Abihu wanted very much to be a part of the ceremony. They too wanted to bring an offering as a sign of their love and devotion to God . Each of them brought a pan with the offering fire to God.
As Rashbam explains it ,”Nadab and Abihu brought holy incense as their way of showing their love for God. They knew that there was a commandment to bring fire and incense every day, and since their uncle Moses had not yet told anyone to do so, they assumed that they should act on their own.”
They had not consulted with uncle Moses nor their father Aaron. They simply took it upon themselves to bring an offering which God had not commanded of them.
A fire came down from heaven and burned the two sons of Aaron to their immediate deaths.
Why did God act so unjustly to two young priests who loved Him and who wanted to honor Him by offering a sacrifice of their own? It is this act of love for the Divine which was punished by the Divine God, that has always pained and troubled me.
Nadab and Abihu had accompanied their father Aaron and their uncle Moses on Mt. Sinai. They had been devoted sons and faithful priests. Why then did they deserve so cruel a death? What, if anything, was their guilt?
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explained that “the deaths of Nadab and Abihu were not a result of a formal transgression but lay rather in their desire to approach God not in accordance with the prescribed ordinances but rather in conformity with the dictates of their own hearts”.
Ibn Ezra and other sages commented that the sin of Aaron’s two sons lay in the fact that they did not consult with their elders but instead, they decided religious questions independently and without authority.
Some rabbis report that the two sons suffered the sin of vain pride. Neither son was married because they considered that no one was good enough for them.
Professor Louis Ginzberg, one of the great 20th century commentators on the Bible, records their thoughts. “Our father’s brother Moses is king and our father is the high priest. Our mother’s brother Nahshon is the prince of his tribe, and we are heads of the priests. What woman is worthy of us?”
Rashi, the greatest interpreter of the Hebrew Bible, who lived in medieval France, relates that the two young men entered the Sanctuary in a state of intoxication . Wine was prohibited to the priests.
Some Biblical scholars insist that if the two sons had consulted with their father, Aaron, or with their uncle, Moses, it is probable that they would not have offered the sacrifice which led to their catastrophic deaths.
If God is a God of justice, why did He have to react so unjustly? The zealousness of Nadab and Abihu in their haste to honor God destroyed them. They died from serving alien fire in the mistaken belief that all religious offerings would be acceptable before God even if He had not commanded it.
It is one story of God’s seeming injustice that has constantly disturbed me. Yet, as one of the rabbis in Rishon Lezion remarked to me, “yesh zman v’yesh makom”… there is a time and there is a place.
Therefore the two sons of Aaron the High Priest were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But their well-intended actions were the cause of their tragic deaths.