In this week’s parsha, Shemini, we learn all about what happened on the Eighth Day of the dedication of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) — the day when the Mishkan was finally and fully activated. It is a day that is described three times in the Torah, each time from a different perspective and with a different focus, and each time we learn different details.
First, at the very end of the Book of Exodus, we are told:
וַיְכַ֥ס הֶעָנָ֖ן אֶת־אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד וּכְב֣וֹד ה’ מָלֵ֖א אֶת־הַמִּשְׁכָּֽן׃
“The cloud rested on the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of God filled the Mishkan.” (Shemot 40:34)
The focus here is on the physical erection of the Mishkan, and the revelation that the people experienced when it was completed.
This day is described again in the parsha of Naso, when we’re told about the gifts and the sacrifices brought by the Nesi’im, the princes or leaders of each tribe.
וַיֹּ֥אמֶר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה נָשִׂ֨יא אֶחָ֜ד לַיּ֗וֹם נָשִׂ֤יא אֶחָד֙ לַיּ֔וֹם יַקְרִ֙יבוּ֙ אֶת־קָרְבָּנָ֔ם לַחֲנֻכַּ֖ת הַמִּזְבֵּֽחַ׃ (ס) וַיְהִ֗י הַמַּקְרִ֛יב בַּיּ֥וֹם הָרִאשׁ֖וֹן אֶת־קָרְבָּנ֑וֹ נַחְשׁ֥וֹן בֶּן־עַמִּינָדָ֖ב לְמַטֵּ֥ה יְהוּדָֽה׃
‘And God said to Moses, “Let one prince come each day to bring their offering for the dedication of the altar.” And on the first day, Nachshon ben Aminadav, the prince of the tribe of Judah, brought his sacrifice.’ (Bamidbar 7:11-12)
In this retelling, the focus is on the special sacrifice brought by the Nasi (leader) of each tribe to mark the dedication of the altar for active use. On this day, Nachshon ben Aminadav, the Nasi of the tribe of Judah and the first of the Nesi’im, brought his offering.
In Shemini, the perspective is that of Aaron and the actions he has to carry out. It is a very detailed process — he has to bring each sacrifice and carry out each task at exactly the right time, and in exactly the right order. You almost feel tired just reading the first chapter of the parsha, as Aaron fetches and carries, slaughters and dedicates, pours and places all the offerings required for the dedication of the Tabernacle.
Moses promises that the glory of God, the Divine Shechinah, will appear when the process is complete — but Aaron completes all his tasks, and no Shechinah appears. The offerings rest on the altar, waiting for fire to come down from heaven. Finally, Moses joins Aaron, and the glory of God appears before all the people — just as we were told at the end of the Book of Exodus. Fire flashes out from before God onto the altar, and consumes all the offerings that were placed upon it. The people rejoice.
But then we’re told about a tragic event that occurs at the same moment as the wonderful revelation. Fire flashes out from before God, in exactly the same way as it flashed out to consume the offerings on the altar — but this time, it consumes the two sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and they die.
וַיִּקְח֣וּ בְנֵֽי־אַ֠הֲרֹן נָדָ֨ב וַאֲבִיה֜וּא אִ֣ישׁ מַחְתָּת֗וֹ וַיִּתְּנ֤וּ בָהֵן֙ אֵ֔שׁ וַיָּשִׂ֥ימוּ עָלֶ֖יהָ קְטֹ֑רֶת וַיַּקְרִ֜בוּ לִפְנֵ֤י ה’ אֵ֣שׁ זָרָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֧ר לֹ֦א צִוָּ֖ה אֹתָֽם׃ וַתֵּ֥צֵא אֵ֛שׁ מִלִּפְנֵ֥י ה’ וַתֹּ֣אכַל אוֹתָ֑ם וַיָּמֻ֖תוּ לִפְנֵ֥י ה’:
‘And the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, each picked up their firepans. And they put fire and incense onto their firepans, and they brought strange fire before God, which God had not commanded them to bring. And fire flashed out before God and consumed them, and they died before God’ (Leviticus 10:1-2)
The Torah does not tell us why Nadav and Avihu died, although the midrash is quick to fill the gap. It gives so many different reasons that the effect is almost the same as if no reason were given at all.
I’d like to suggest a new possibility — one which cuts to the heart of the family of Nadav and Avihu.¹
A leap into the unknown
Nadav and Avihu are the two oldest sons of Aaron and Elisheva. We know all about Aaron already, but we know almost nothing about Elisheva. Elisheva gets just one mention in the entire Torah — when Aaron marries her.
“וַיִּקַּ֨ח אַֽהֲרֹ֜ן אֶת־אֱלִישֶׁ֧בַע בַּת־עַמִּֽינָדָ֛ב אֲח֥וֹת נַחְשׁ֖וֹן ל֣וֹ לְאִשָּׁ֑ה וַתֵּ֣לֶד ל֗וֹ אֶת־נָדָב֙ וְאֶת־אֲבִיה֔וּא אֶת־אֶלְעָזָ֖ר וְאֶת־אִֽיתָמָֽר:”
“And Aharon took Elisheva, the daughter of Aminadav, the sister of Nachshon, as a wife. And she gave birth to Nadav and Avihu, and Elazar and Itamar” (Shemot 6:23)
Elisheva comes from the tribe of Judah. She’s the daughter of Aminadav, and the sister of Nachshon. The same Nachshon who brought his offering on the Eighth Day, the day on which Moses put up the Mishkan, the day on which Aaron carried out a complex set of rituals and offerings, the day on which Nadav and Avihu died.
Before we continue, we need to understand something about Nachshon. The midrash² tells us that there was a special reason why he merited to become the prince of the tribe of Judah. It’s because he was the first one to jump into the Reed Sea (now known as the Red Sea).
The midrash describes the Jewish people standing around on the shore before the sea split. They were terrified of the Egyptians behind them, yet petrified to go forwards. Everyone shuffled around, saying, “I’m not going first” “Well, I’m certainly not jumping into that.” No one wanted to be the one to take the plunge. Then Nachshon stepped forward and dived right in, and all the tribe of Judah followed after him. The sea split, and the Jews were saved.
It is easy to imagine everyone talking about it afterwards, admiring Nachshon for his courage in taking that giant leap for mankind. We are told that because of this, he also merited to have all the kings of Israel descend from him.
A leap gone wrong
On this Eighth Day, Nadav and Avihu were together with Aaron and Moses in the Tabernacle. They were waiting, along with all the rest of the nation, for the glory of God to descend. Everything was ready, but the glory of God was not there. Nadav and Avihu felt the tension. Perhaps they felt that the honor of their father was in question — after all, people like Korach were already whispering that maybe Aaron did not really deserve to be the High Priest, after his involvement in the terrible disaster of the Golden Calf. Nadav and Avihu turned and saw their uncle, Nachshon, waiting with his sacrifice. They felt that it was time for heroic action.
Nadav and Avihu picked up their firepans, put incense and fire onto the pans, and brought “strange fire” to the altar. The fire of God descended, the glory of God appeared — and Nadav and Avihu died.
A step out of line
Nachshon was a goal-oriented person, focused on achieving results by any means necessary. It’s an approach that’s entirely correct for a king. When he jumped into the sea, it was a goal-oriented action. He showed that he possessed the right qualities, so his descendants were fit to serve as kings of Israel.
The Tabernacle, however, demands an entirely different approach. The emphasis is not on the ends, but on the means. The way that you do something matters far more than what you do. This is why a kohen (priest) could bring a sacrifice entirely correctly, do every action in just the right way, but if his mind is not focused in the right manner, the whole sacrifice is invalidated. The priests need to be process-oriented, not goal-oriented.
Nadav and Avihu chose the wrong behavior, in the wrong place, and at the wrong time. They stepped out of line.
In a few different places, the midrash³ tells us about the tragic experience of Elisheva. You can imagine her shepping maximum nachas from all her family members and rejoicing in their achievements on this Eighth Day. Just think for a moment. Her husband Aaron was serving as the High Priest. Her two sons Nadav and Avihu were serving as deputies to the office of the High Priest. Her brother Nachshon was the prince. She had four amazing reasons to celebrate on this day.
But then, the midrash continues, her two sons were burned to death, and all her joy turned, in an instant, into mourning.
Immediately after Nadav and Avihu’s deaths, Moses reminds Aaron and his two other sons that they are not permitted to mourn. They were in the middle of serving in the Mishkan, with the anointing oil still upon them. Out of the entire immediate family, only Elisheva was able to sit and mourn on that day.
It is all too easy to imagine her mourning. Her joy was like a mocking memory. When she saw her sons leap in with their firepans, she must have recognized the shadow of her brother Nachshon’s impulsive leap into the sea. The day ends, for Elisheva, in sadness and sorrow, with her pride in her brother turned to pain.
¹ I’m grateful to rabi v’mori, Rabbi Ari Kahn, for helping clarify this idea for me.
² Midrash Aggadah Bamidbar, 1:7
³ Midrash Mishlei, 31:25; Vayikra Rabbah 20; Sifrei Zuta 7