David Harbater
Author, educator and scholar

Nadav and Avihu, priests and soldiers

The precise nature of the transgression of Nadav and Avihu which led to their being consumed by a divine fire as described in Parashat Shemini that we read this week has baffled commentators for centuries. Here is a partial list of the explanations that have been offered: 1. They came too close to the divine presence, 2. They entered the precincts of the sanctuary while inebriated with wine, 3. They didn’t consult one another, 4. They issued a halakhic ruling in the presence of Moses, their teacher, 5. They brought an unauthorized offering, 6. They burnt the incense with an unauthorized flame. Now, while all these commentators try to find clues in the text to support their approaches, one cannot help but wonder why the text itself doesn’t provide a clearer and more explicit explanation.

I would like to suggest that the text does, in fact, offer a general explanation but is deliberately vague with regard to the details. Let me explain. The parasha begins by telling us about the specific rites that the people and the priests must perform upon the dedication of the altar in the Tabernacle. Moses emphasizes that these rites were determined by God and that if they are performed exactly as God dictated, His presence will appear in the Tabernacle that resides in their midst and will remain with them throughout their journey in the desert.

We are subsequently told that “They brought… the things that Moses commanded” (9:5), that Aaron performed the ritual “as the Lord had commanded Moses” (9:10) and then again, at the end, that he did so “as Moses had commanded” (9:21). As a result, “the presence of the Lord appeared to all the people” (9:23) as promised, a fire consumed the offerings symbolizing the success of the dedication ceremony, and upon realizing this success, the people rejoiced (9:24). It is against this background that we can begin to understand the fundamental flaw in the actions of Nadav and Avihu described in the very next verse (10:1).

“Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it: and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which He had not commanded them.” While the text is not clear on the precise nature of the sin, it may not really matter. What matters is that, whatever they did, God “had not commanded them”. In other words, the point of the story may be to teach that in certain contexts of religious life such as within the Tabernacle which houses God’s presence and within sacrificial worship which is the domain of the priests, everything must be done exactly in accordance with God’s command, and that any departure from God’s command will be punished severely. Within these contexts, there is the Leader and there are His subordinates, there is the Ruler and there are His rules, and only when these rules are followed “to the T” can success be achieved and can God’s presence dwell among the people.

What is true with regard to the Tabernacle and priestly service is true with regard to the army and military service as well. In the army, soldiers from all backgrounds, beliefs and lifestyles must come together and fight as one under the leadership of their military commander. They must set aside their differences and defer to a higher authority regardless of their personal views and ideologies and of their feelings about the war they are waging. Any changes or deviations from the orders they are given can jeopardize the entire military campaign and are, therefore, punished with the utmost severity.

This week, then, is a good time to pay tribute to the IDF soldiers today for the exemplary way in which they have been carrying out orders from above and for the remarkable heroism they have been displaying on the battlefield in defending Israel against its enemies.

Let us hope and pray for their continued success, and then when victory is achieved, may God’s presence rest within our midst as it did in the Tabernacle many years ago.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. David Harbater's recently published book "In the Beginnings: Discovering the Two Worldviews Hidden within Genesis 1-11" is available on Amazon and at book stores around Israel and the US. He teaches Bible and Jewish thought at Midreshet Torah V'Avodah, at the Amudim Seminary, and at the Women's Beit Midrash of Efrat. Make sure to follow him on Facebook and LinkedIn for more interesting content.
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