Parshat Shimini tells the dramatic tale of Nadav and Avihu: Ahron’s two eldest sons bring an offering to God without being commanded to do so, and they are punished by death.
“וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי-אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ, קְטֹרֶת; וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, אֵשׁ זָרָה–אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה, אֹתָם. וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה, וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם; וַיָּמֻתוּ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה.”
“And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered foreign fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.” (Leviticus 10:1-2)
The danger of pure inspiration
Growing up, many of us were taught that these two overeager Priests were evil and misguided. However, when we consider the story more deeply, we can all identify with the desire to get “extra brownie points” by going beyond that which was asked of us – like children trying to impress their parents by doing their chores without being told. After all, isn’t it better to be driven by a genuine love for our Creator rather than simply obeying orders out of fear or habit?
In the name of his grandfather, The Chiddushei HaRim, the Sfat Emet gives us a more nuanced insight into this story and its complex characters. What did they do wrong, what did they do right, and what can we learn from them today?
“ללמוד כי העיקר כח כל מעשה האדם מצד ציווי ה’. כי כל שכל אדם בטל לכח זה. והנה נדב ואביהוא היו צדיקים גדולים ועשו לשם שמים רק שהיה חסר הציווי.”
First things first, the Sfat Emet tells us that Nadav and Avihu were, in fact, righteous people driven by pure passion. Rav Shlomo Carlebach constantly spoke of them as the epitome of enthusiasm gone wrong. Like so many eclectic souls throughout our history, their unharnessed fervor ultimately brought great confusion and pain to the Jewish world. Even the purest of flames can get out of hand if they are not controlled by the limits of the law.
The power of self-nullification
“אם כן מי שעושה רצון הבורא אף שאינו יודע טעם הדבר לעשותו בכוונה רצויה. הרי זה הכח מצד פקודת ה’. כמאמר אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו. כח ציווי זו חשוב מן הכל.”
What truly gives human beings strength, the Sfat Emet explains, is our ability to nullify ourselves to God’s will. It is greater to do a mitzvah because God says so than because we understand it. In a world where we have always been taught that “knowledge is power,” this is a difficult concept to accept. Most of us believe that our understanding of the reasons behind our actions increases their worth, but the Sfat Emet says the exact opposite. He suggests that fulfilling mitzvot without fully understanding them ultimately gives us a much deeper understanding of the true purpose of the commandments.
God gifted human beings with brilliant brains and the ability to achieve unbelievable accomplishments using the power of our intellect. But even the greatest human mind is meaningless in the face of Divine Wisdom. While we must always use our intellect to deepen our comprehension of Torah and the world, we also need to know how to turn it off – how to nullify our understanding before the Ultimate Understanding. There are a million great explanations of why we Count the Omer, but the only one that really matters is that God commanded us to do so.
“ויש להבין מה שכתוב שתויי יין נכנסו כי השגת הטעמים נקרא יין יינה של תורה. אף על פי כן צריך להיות רק בפקודת המלך. ולאשר השגתם גבר להם לעשות גם אשר לא צוה ה’ נקרא שתויי יין נכנסו.”
Beyond simply doing something without being commanded, our Sages teach that Nadav and Avihu were actually drunk when they brought their offering. The Sfat Emet suggests that this should not be taken literally; they were not drunk from wine, but rather from their own intellect, from attempting to grasp the reasons behind the mitzvot. This intoxicating feeling of “I got it!” was ultimately their downfall. They were led astray by the greatness of their intellectual capacity, Torah knowledge, and God perceptions.
Once you believe you understand God’s will, it gives you permission to do whatever you want under the false premise that it is actually what God wants. You can easily justify not doing a mitzvah or, like Nadav and Avihu, you can do things that God has not commanded of you because you know His will better than God Himself. Once you understand “the reason” behind a mitzvah, do you even have the capacity to do it purely because it is God’s will?
The significance of the Divine relationship
“ועל פי זה נפרש טובים דודיך מיין. כלומר התדבקות והתקרבות ה’ אשר קרבנו אליו “טובים מכל השגת שכל האדם
The Sfat Emet concludes his commentary on this story with a phrase from the Song of Songs: “for your love is better than wine” (1:2). Loving you is greater than understanding you, dear God. The Sfat Emet argues that strengthening our emotional relationship with God is far more important than anything we can grasp intellectually about the Creator, the Torah, or the reasons behind the mitzvot – analogous to wine, as explained above. While understanding the spiritual benefits or logical reasons for a commandment may enhance our personal experience, there is truly nothing greater than doing it because God said so.
The way to bring God into the world
Nadav and Avihu are also criticized for being single and childless. I believe that the intention behind these words is that they were not anchored by the practical responsibilities of the physical world. It is easy to reach the highest heights when you never need to come down to change a diaper, do the dishes, pay the bills, or meet a work deadline. These high and holy priests lived in their magical minds, without needing to build a home and society with other human beings.
“וְהֵשִׁיב לֵב-אָבוֹת עַל-בָּנִים, וְלֵב בָּנִים עַל-אֲבוֹתָם”
“And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers.” (Malachi 3:24)
In messianic times, it is taught that the hearts of fathers, the old souls grounded in tradition and halacha, will be unified with the hearts of children, the young souls on fire for Hashem who just want to fly. In order to give our love for God’s expression in this world, we must have something down here to hold on to. The best way to bring infinite Divinity into a finite world is through the mitzvot that God gave to us. By fulfilling His will, we increase His presence in the world.
Through the simultaneous greatness and downfall of Nadav and Avihu, the Sfat Emet teaches us that the most powerful act a human being can do in this world is nullifying his wisdom to that of the Creator. No matter what we may believe, all God wants of us is exactly that which He asked of us: to fulfill the mitzvot of the Torah, whether we understand them or not.