This week, we read of the inauguration of the משכן, arguably one of the happiest celebrations for the Jews in the wilderness. However, some sadness interrupts and threatens to ruin this joyous occasion:
וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי-אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ, קְטֹרֶת; וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי ה’, אֵשׁ זָרָה–אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה, אֹתָם. וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי ה’, וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם; וַיָּמֻתוּ, לִפְנֵי ה’ וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אַהֲרֹן, הוּא אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר ה’ לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ, וְעַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד; וַיִּדֹּם, אַהֲרֹן
And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon, each took a firepan, lit fire in them, and placed incense into them, and they brought a foreign fire before G-d, which He had not commanded them. And a fire left before G-d and consumed them, and they died before G-d. And Moshe said to Aharon, this is what G-d had said saying ‘through those that are close to me I will be sanctified, and before all of the nation, I will be honored.’ And Aharon was silent. (ויקרא י:א-ג)
What?! On the holy day of the inauguration of the Tabernacle, Aharon’s two oldest sons make a mistake, though it’s not clear exactly what it was, or why they did it, and, just like that… they were gone. The מפרשים struggle with how to interpret this event, and Moshe’s seemingly unrelated words of comfort that seemed to actually succeed in comforting Aharon.
The Midrash Sifra, quoted by many of the commentators, including Rashi, takes the basic approach that Nadav and Avihu, as the פסוקים say, brought an “אש זרה,” a foreign fire, in the קודש הקדשים, a grievous error as only the כהן גדול is allowed to enter there, and only on יום כיפור. For these two serious offenses, G-d killed them immediately.
Rabeinu Bechaya, taking a less literal approach, answers with a question: How could it be that Nadav and Avihu, who had been present for the last six parshiot and had therefore developed a comprehensive expertise for the Mishkan (as we all should have, having read every single detail of the structure at least three times), didn’t know that entering the קודש הקדשים is a big “no no?” Rather, they simply brought the normal incense in its normal location, albeit without G-d asking. Even though this is significantly less grievous than Sifra’s alternative, it is nonetheless a serious offense, and they were therefore punished with death.
While these are both very interesting and accurate approaches, I would like to present a well-known answer to this question by taking a step back and looking at the context surrounding this tragedy.
Immediately before the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, everything is going great- the first korban had been brought on the מזבח, signaling to the nation that their prayers for forgiveness had been answered. Then we read of Nadav and Avihu’s mistake and punishment, and the resulting cleanup by their cousins Mishael and Elzaphan. Then, we are presented with a new מצוה for the כהנים, seemingly out of nowhere:
וַיְדַבֵּר ה’, אֶל-אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר. יַיִן וְשֵׁכָר אַל-תֵּשְׁתְּ אַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ אִתָּךְ, בְּבֹאֲכֶם אֶל-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד–וְלֹא תָמֻתוּ: חֻקַּת עוֹלָם, לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם. וּלְהַבְדִּיל, בֵּין הַקֹּדֶשׁ וּבֵין הַחֹל, וּבֵין הַטָּמֵא, וּבֵין הַטָּהוֹר.
And G-d spoke to Aharon saying: You shall not drink wine nor alcohol, not you nor your children with you, when you go into the Mishkan- so that you won’t die, this will be a law forever, for your generations. To [allow you] to tell the difference between holy and mundane, and between unclean and clean. (שם ט-י)
One could say, from a strict pshat approach, that there is no connection between this new directive and the previous tragedy. But, the words “ולא תמתו” seem to suggest otherwise. They change this new מצוה into a warning, threat, and lesson, all-in-one. Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshishcha, one of the gedolim of the early 19th century Hassidic world, elaborates that this is such a serious offense since a כהן must naturally complete his עבודה through pure joy in his service of Hashem. If he attempts to supplement or stimulate this עבודה through alcohol (or other external stimuli), he has not properly completed his service, because his intentions are equally as important as his actions.
Chazal conclude that Nadav and Avihu were punished so harshly because they completed their ill-fated service while intoxicated. That such holy people would stoop to such a low level and then attempt עבודת השם was so appalling that G-d saw fit to kill them as a כפרה for this sin. This presents a lesson to us on the importance of doing our עבודת השם in good mind and good spirits, without an external stimulus- if we come before G-d to pray or do a מצוה in the wrong mindset, not only have we not accomplished what we intended- we’ve also done some bad in the process.
This year, the Jewish calendar is in a very unique position where Parshat Shemini is read on the Shabbat immediately following Purim. On Purim, we are commanded in four mitzvot, and in addition, many people are מחמיר on themselves to follow the teaching of the Shulchan Aruch:
חייב אינש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי
A person is obligated to become drunk on Purim until he cannot distinguish between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordechai’. (אורח חיים תרצ”ה:ב’)
Rav Moshe Isserlis, a famous Ashkenazi commentator on this work, qualifies this somewhat broad idea:
ויש אומרים דאין צריך להשתכר כל כך, אלא שישתה יוצר מלימודו… ואחד המרובה וחד הממעיט ובלבד שיכוין לבו לשמים
A person does not necessarily need to get that drunk (until עד דלא ידע), only more than usual… and whether one drinks a lot or a little, he must do it for the sake of Heaven. (רמ”א שם)
This is a big limitation. Everyone, or at the very least those of Ashkenazi descent, have no actually obligation to get drunk, only to drink slightly more than usual. But those who decide to, have an obligation to ensure that their drinking is לשם שמים. Otherwise, not only have they not fulfilled the idea of “חייב איניש לבשומיה,” but they ruined others’ שמחת חג, in effect undoing all of the four מצות that they had already accomplished that day.
Putting this controversial discussion aside, the story of Aharon’s sons’ death, based on our interpretation above, adds another limitation to חייב איניש לבשומיה- one must not let their drinking on Purim interfere with their עבודת השם. This is especially difficult for those who finish their סעודת פורים later, because many will erroneously pray ערבית while still inebriated, leading to a, shall we say, very leibedik davening, to ensure that they make תפילה בציבור. For anyone who has done this or will do it in the future, I would like to remind you that while Rav Yosef Karo does allow for one to become drunk “עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי,” our parsha makes it clear that it is very wrong for one to attempt any form of עבודת השם if he or she does not have the faculties to “להבדיל בין הקודש ובין החול, ובין הטמא ובין הטהור.” Furthermore, if one does mistakenly do this, Chazal make it very clear that nothing good will come of it, and this individual would have definitely not drunk לשם שמים.
This brings a new meaning to Moshe’s mysterious words of comfort: “בקרובי אקדש ועל פני כל העם אכבד”- in order to honor G-d’s name in public, we must aim to sanctify Him through becoming closer to Him. When Nadav and Avihu drank during the חנוכת המשכן, their drinking was clearly לשם שמים, so even though they made a huge mistake and died for it, Moshe’s words were a source of comfort for Aharon, knowing that his sons’ death was a result of their attempt to try to sanctify G-d’s name. For us, not even close to the same level as Aharon’s eldest sons, we must take Moshe’s words as a warning. When drinking, we must make sure to drink to try to reach “בקרובי אקדש”, otherwise we will definitely not reach “על פני כל העם אכבד.” We are lucky to be Hashem’s “קרובי,” and we must be very careful, for everything we do has the potential to make a big קידוש השם… or an equally big חילול השם. With Hashem’s help, we will all merit to make the correct choices that enable us to connect to G-d by serving Him properly, and through this, sanctify His name in front of the entire nation.