In Parshat Shmini, Vayikra 10:1-2, we read: “Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s sons, took, each of them his fire-pan, placed fire on it and then placed incense upon it and they brought before God a strange fire, which He had not commanded them. A fire came forth from before God and consumed them, and they died in the presence of God.”
According to Sifra 24, “Overwhelmed by joy on perceiving the new fire, they sought to redouble their love.”
It seems that Nadav and Avihu were enthusiastic about serving God, so why were they punished so severely?
Rabbi Naftali Hertz Wiesel in The Biur explains:
Nadav and Avihu were towering personalities; they certainly did not maliciously transgress the word of God. But in their superabundant joy, they lost their judgement and entered the Holy of Holies to burn fine incense although this was not commanded by Moshe. They acted of their own accord, and this is the meaning of “which He had not commanded them.”
Nechama Leibowitz comments “Nadav and Avihu did not offend against any ritual precepts but sinned by reaching for God through the dictates of their own hearts rather than the path set by God. Submission to the yoke of Heaven- the ultimate aim of the Torah was here supplanted by unbridled religious ecstasy, Hence their punishment.”
Nechama Leibowitz continues, “It is neither through momentary passion nor even through self sacrifice that the religious goal is attained but rather through the discipline spelled out in the precepts of the Torah. Many consider such submission to the commandments as against spontaneous worship stimulated by personal and subjective sentiments as mechanical and objectionable. Yet we learn from the Sifra, it was precisely the unrestrained desire to ascend to forbidden heights that constituted an unpardonable sin.”
We learn from here that we need to find spiritual outlets that are not beyond the realm of the Torah. We were given 613 commandments to help us draw closer to God from within the “system” without having to go elsewhere.
May we all have the yearning and enthusiasm of Nadav and Avihu to try to attach ourselves to God, but we must learn from their mistakes and channel our energies differently to ensure that we continue to live through the observance of the commandments.