The death of Nadav and Avihu: – a willful act of self-sacrifice?

In Parshat Shemini (Lev. 9:1-3) we learn of the death of Aharon’s two sons Nadav and Avihu who had brought their own fire into the Mishkan.

ויקריבו לפני ה אש זרה אשר לא צוה אותם … וימתו לפני ה … ויאמר משה  אל אהרן הוא אשר דבר ה לאמר בקרבי אקדש ועל פני כל העם אכבד …וידם אהרן

“And they offered an alien fire before the Lord which he had not commanded them. And a fire went out from the Lord and consumed them and they died before the Lord, Then Moshe said to Aharon; This is what the Lord spoke saying, I will be sanctified in them that come near me, and before all the people I will be glorified. And Aharon was silent.”

 Much ink has flowed on attempts to explain Aharon’s silence in the presence of his sons’ immolation; punishment for a sin whose consequence they could hardly have known, if indeed it were a sin at all.

I would like to suggest that the word וידם is not ordinary silence which would be better expressed with the term וישתוק. Rather, וידם is an awed silence, the silence of spiritual ecstasy. What’s more, the act of Nadav and Avihu was not merely an act of unwarranted zealotry, but rather a willful act of self-offering; a self-sacrifice knowingly made by two young kohanim who were consumed by a desire to exit the physical realm and rise to the non-corporeal realm of pure unity with G-d.

What’s more, Nadav and Avihu were not alone in this ecstatic desire for unity with G-d. Indeed, Aharon had a similar longing, and was stopped by Moshe’s interjection: “I will be sanctified in them that come near me, and before all the people I will be glorified.”

What Moshe is saying is that G-d is indeed sanctified by those that come near Him, yet this serves no practical purpose, a purpose that is best fulfilled by a lesser act of being glorified before all the people.

This is confirmed by the opening verses of Parshat Aharei Mot (Lev: 16:1-2):

וידבר ה אל משה אחרי מות שני בני אהרן בקרבתם לפני ה וימותו … ואל יבא בכל עת אל הקדש מבית לפרכת אל פני הכפרת אשר על הארן ולא ימות 

(1)And the LORD spoke to Moshe, after the death of the two sons of Aharon, when they drew near before G-d, and died; (2) and G-d told Moshe: ‘Speak to your brother Aharon, that he must not come at any time into the holy place within the veil, before the ark-cover which is on the ark; that he should not die; for I appear in the cloud upon the ark-cover.”

Here it is made perfectly clear that the act of Nadav and Avihu was not a sin, but rather an act of self-sacrifice: אחרי מות שני בני אהרן בקרבתם לפני ה וימותו. Furthermore the phrase בקרבתם לפני ה וימותו is a single concept, and should be understood as meaning “in their sacrificing themselves before G-d in order to die” and not as is conventionally translated.

This can be confirmed by verse 2 when G-d says that Aharon should not arbitrarily come “into the holy place within the veil … and he should not die (ולא ימות) …”. This, I believe, is not a suggestion but an order to Aharon to resist the temptation to follow his sons’ example, and that he must not enable himself to die in an act of ecstatic devotion as his sons had done.

There is an important message here. Yes, there are people who are capable of achieving a degree of spiritual ecstasy that can remove them from physical life thereby sanctifying G-d through their self-sacrifice. But this is not what G-d wants. He prefers to be glorified before the people. Extreme, all-consuming devotion serves no useful purpose as it eliminates spirituality from this world. It leaves “the people” bereft of down to earth leaders who can offer guidance and comfort. No purpose is served by an all-consuming spirituality that benefits no one even if it sanctifies G-d.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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