A boy is born in a small house with no windows and no way out. He is locked inside, never given a chance to see the outside world. This house has no windows, so he never once sees the outside world. He is provided with food and clothing, as well as books and some toys for entertainment, but that is it. He will obviously come to believe that this house is all that exists. His view of the world will be so limited, so confined, that if he were to one day break down the door of this house, he would be in absolute awe of all that lies around him. The grandeur, the sheer magnitude and marvel of the surrounding world will astound him and leave him wondering how he ever considered his previous existence to be a full life. This idea connects to a fundamental theme in this week’s parshah, Shemini.
Parshas Shemini is infamous for the shocking sin and death of Nadav and Avihu. The pasuk describes how, during the chanukas Ha’Mishkan- the inauguration of the Tabernacle- Nadav and Avihu offered the ketores- the spice offering- and were engulfed by Divine flames (Vayikra 10:1-2). What is both striking and perplexing about this episode is the fact that it is unclear what their sin was and why it warranted such a harsh punishment. What was so terrible about their actions? Is it so dreadful and appalling to bring an offering to Hashem? To answer these questions, we will go through a range of possible answers as we ultimately develop a deeper understanding of this topic.
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A Few Opinions in Brief
Rashi quotes Rav Eliezer’s position, that Nadav and Avihu violated the prohibition of being moreh bifnei rabo- teaching halacha in front of their Rebbe, Moshe Rabbeinu.
Another opinion mentioned in the Sifra is that Nadav and Avihu sinned by entering the Kodesh Ha’Kedoshim- the Holy of Holies. As the holiest place in the world, it is completely off limits to all except the Kohen Gadol- the High Priest- and even for him, it is only allowed on Yom Kippur. Evidence for this position is in the very next parsha, Acharei Mos (16:1), where the Torah links the Yom Kippur avodah with the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. The Sifra suggests that this is due to the fact that the avodah of the ketores, precisely what Nadav and Avihu performed, is done exclusively on Yom Kippur in the Kodesh Hakedoshim. The fact that Nadav and Avihu are associated with this exclusive avodah hints to the fact that they performed it at the wrong time and were therefore punished.
Rabbi Akiva suggests that the problem was where the fire came from; they sinned by bringing a forbidden fire- an aish zarah- onto the mizbeach.
Rashi also quotes Rabbi Yishmael’s position, suggesting that their error lay in the fact that they got drunk before performing the avodah. This is based on the fact that the very next passage in the Torah tells us of the prohibition for a kohen to be drunk while doing the avodah. The placement of this command is quite logical if it follows the very event where it was violated.
[If we take a deeper perspective on drunkenness, we get an interesting understanding of this position. The spiritual concept of getting drunk is connected to the theme of spiritual transcendence and expansion of consciousness. Although done inappropriately, Nadav and Avihu attempted to transcend their physical state and connect to Hashem on the deepest level. This also explains why they specifically chose the avodah of the Kodesh Ha’Kedoshim, a place which transcends all physical dimensions of time and space. Their “sin”, therefore, was that they were not yet ready to enter such a complete spiritual state. This explains their strange punishment: The pasuk describes how they were engulfed by Divine flames, but Rashi explains based on the Gemara (Sanhedrin 52a) that their physical bodies remained intact while their souls alone were engulfed by this fire. They transcended to a completely spiritual level that they were not yet ready for, and therefore they were spiritually consumed.]
The Big Question
There is, however, something missing from all of these approaches. Rashi quotes the midrash which explains that Moshe already knew that the two holiest people in Klal Yisrael would die on this very day, the day of the chanukas Ha’Mishkan. Moshe had thought that these two people would be Aharon and himself, but it turned out to be Nadav and Avihu instead. Clearly, Nadav and Avihu were on a tremendously lofty level. If so, how could they have done something so dreadfully and obviously wrong, something that resulted in such a harsh heavenly punishment
The Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachya therefore suggest a different answer, that the only problem with Nadav and Avihu’s actions was that they brought their ketores offering without being commanded to do so. This view is drawn from the explicit statement of the pasuk itself, that Nadav and Avihu brought an offering “Asher lo tzivah osam” – that they were not commanded to bring (Vayikra 10:1).
Based on this, though, we face a new difficulty. If Nadav and Avihu’s sin was only that they did something which they were not commanded to do, our question is strengthened. What was so abhorrent about their actions that it merited such extreme punishment? Granted, Hashem did not command them to bring the ketores, but they didn’t do anything prohibited, only something that was not commanded. In order to understand this topic then, we must look at the bigger picture of what it means to be commanded in the first place, and what the difference is between being metzuveh – commanded by Hashem – and eino metzuveh – not commanded.
Gadol Ha’Metzuveh Mi She’Aino Metzuveh
The Gemara (Baba Kama 38a, Baba Kama 87a) states that it is greater for you to do something which you have been commanded to do by Hashem than to do it of your own volition. Meaning, it is better to perform a mitzvah- a commandment- out of obedience to Hashem’s will than to do it spontaneously, of your own will. At first glance, this appears counterintuitive. Wouldn’t it be better to do it of your own volition? Wouldn’t this be the more genuine expression of Divine service? Instead of doing it because you have to, you’re doing it because you want to!
The first explanation of this statement lies in the principle of ego. We tend to prefer doing things only when we want to do them. We don’t like being told what to do. We automatically shy away from external instruction, as obedience to others means giving up our ego, our sense of control, and our illusion of being ultimately superior. A mitzvah, however, is about negating our ego and submitting to the will of Hashem. Hashem gives us instruction in the form of mitzvos; we obey them because He told us to, and as we do so, even if we may not understand or agree with everything, we submit our ego and acknowledge Hashem as the ultimate source of truth and His instructions as the guide to this world.
Limited vs. Infinite
The second explanation of why performing mitzvos is superior to acting out of your own volition requires us to understand the concept of mitzvah on a deeper level. The simple understanding of a mitzvah is that it is a command from Hashem asking us to obey His will. The Maharal, however, suggests a different explanation leading to a fundamentally deeper understanding of mitzvos. He explains that mitzvah it rooted in the word tzavtah- which means connection. A Mitzvah isn’t simply obeying a command, as a soldier obeys the will of his commander. Rather, it is a way for us to connect, spiritually and existentially, to Hashem, our source of existence.
Whenever we do an action, we are acting as an extension and manifestation of the one who willed and commanded it. When Hashem commands something, and we fulfill that command, we have bonded to and become part of something infinitely greater than ourselves, to Hashem Himself. Hashem wanted this to happen and you are now accepting His will, attaching yourself to His will, and making His will your own. By performing this act you are now becoming a true embodiment and reflection of Hashem in this world. This is why it’s infinitely greater to be commanded than to act spontaneously. When we doing something without being commanded, all you are reflecting is yourself. This is your personal form of avodah, one disconnected from Hashem. Instead of manifesting something transcendent, all that we manifest is our own limited smallness.
The ultimate depth of this though, is that as a tzelem Elokim, your own root will is Hashem’s will. You don’t “give up” your will to adopt His will, rather you become deeply self-aware to the extent that you realize that His will is your root will. This comes with the realization that you are neither the center of the world, nor the source of your own existence. Hashem is. Let us briefly explore this topic.
Hashem as the Makom of the World
Many people think that before Hashem created the world, there was nothing. On the contrary, until Hashem created the world, there was everything, there was only Hashem Himself. As the Arizal, the Ramchal, and others explain, Hashem created the world by making a makom, a space, within Himself. Just as everything in the physical world needs space to exist, existence itself required a space to exist. For example, if you have a cup which is completely filled with metal you won’t be able to pour any water into it. Only if there is a space in the cup, if there is room for the water, can you pour water into the cup. Before Hashem created the world, there was no space for us to exist, as all of existence was occupied by Hashem- ein od milvado. To create the physical world, Hashem made space within Himself for us to exist. This is why Hashem is referred to as the makom of the world, the place of the world (Medrash Tehillim 90, Rashi on Pirkei Avos- Perek 2). We exist within Hashem, so to speak.
Just imagine if you created a person within your mind, gave him a life story, a family, a role to play. You have now made space, within yourself, for this person to exist. However, he only continues to exist so long as you continue to think about him and give him existence. The same is true for each of us, we only continue to exist as long as Hashem continues to will us into existence.
This is the true nature of a mitzvah. A mitzvah is connecting ourselves to Hashem, the ultimate root of reality, the source of all existence, the makom of the world, and attaching ourselves to His will. Just like the boy from the story, who suddenly realized that the world was so much larger than his narrow perspective, a mitzvah allows us to expand infinitely beyond the limited borders of our ego, connecting to the infinite. In doing so, we become partners with Hashem Himself, and our sense of self expands infinitely.
Explaining Nadav and Avihu’s Mistake
We can now understand the Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachya’s explanation. Nadav and Avihu were not commanded to bring the ketores offering, they brought it of their own desire and volition. In doing so, they reflected their own ego, and nothing more. True, they had pure intentions, but this was not the will of Hashem. [This is also one of the explanations of Adam Ha’Rishon’s sin, the chet ha’egel, Shaul’s sin, Dovid’s sin, and many other fundamental errors throughout Tanach. While these applications are beyond the scope of this article, this shows how far reaching this principle is.]
Deserving of Death?
Nevertheless, we are still left with one big problem. Granted, this may not have been the ideal form of avodas Hashem, since Nadav and Avihu acted without being commanded. However, was this action really deserving of the death penalty? We do not generally consider someone who acts without being commanded to be a sinner. On the contrary, they may be even be a righteous person. They are simply not as lofty as someone who does this act through the form of a mitzvah, which is infinitely greater. Based on this, why were Nadav and Avihu deserving of death? The answer to this lies in the time and place of this incident.
The Root is Always the Most Potent
Every process contains multiple stages. The first is the spark of creation, which is followed by a slow process of expressing that seed, and then finally, the finished product. Take, for example, the growth of a tree. First there is the seed, which goes through a slow growth process as that seed is expressed, and finally there is the tree itself. A human being goes through this same process as well. Every person begins as a zygote, a single cell, which grows and develops into the end result – a fully formed human being.
In every process of creation, the root, the seed, the most important and potent phase. This formative stage is the most delicate. Any error or imperfection present at this stage will have cataclysmic results! For example, if a boy cuts his finger at the age of seven, it’s not that bad. However, if there is even a minor glitch in the DNA of a zygote, even a single chromosome missing, everything can go wrong, the results can be catastrophic!
This is the key towards answering the Pinei Yehoshua’s famous question regarding Chanukah. He asks: why did we need to find pach shemen- pure olive oil- when we defeated the Greeks and reclaimed the Beis Ha’Mikdash? There is a concept called tumah hutrah bi’tzibur- that when everyone in the community of Klal Yisrael is impure you don’t need pure oil, impure oil can suffice. Rav Yosef Angel explains that while this is normally true, this specific case is an exception. This wasn’t just some standard case of lighting the menorah, this was the Chanukas Ha’Mizbe’ach, the inauguration of the Temple. Since this was the inception, the root period of creation, everything needed to be perfect. The oil therefore needed to be pure.
So too, Nadav and Avihu sinned during the Chanukas Ha’Mishkan, the inauguration of the Tabernacle. The Nefesh Ha’Chaim explains that this was like the rebuilding of the world. This creative process was in its root stage, anything even slightly amiss would be devastating. We simply could not afford to begin the wrong way, or the Mishkan would have been built on these faulty principles. This is why Nadav and Avihu received such a severe punishment, they sinned at the root stage of the process. Their act, and its repercussions, were both exponentially multiplied because of this timing.
What, Why, and How
Every act that we do is multilayered, and therefore our decisions must be as well. First, we must determine what exactly we are doing. Is this action a reflection of a deep truth, and therefore objectively valuable, or is it meaningless? Next, we must question why we are doing this act. Am I doing it with the intention of connecting with the infinite will of Hashem or am I simply expressing my own limited ego? As we then proceed to undertake the action, we must ask ourselves how we are doing it. Are we maintaining our commitment to idealistic connection or are just going through the motions? May we be inspired to search for the truth, to live by that truth, and connect to Hashem in the deepest and truest of ways.