Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord a strange fire, which He had not commanded of them,” (Vayikra 10:1).
Though we may have lost the thread of the storyline, there is still a tale being told in the Book of Vayikra. It was broken up by the sacrifices in the first two parshiot, but at the end of Parshat Tzav and continuing in this week’s parsha, the story continues.
Not only does the story continue, but we actually reach a climactic moment for Am Yisrael, followed by one that equals it in its tragedy. The end of last week’s parsha tells of the installation of Aaron and his children in their priestly roles, and its culmination is on day eight, which brings us to the beginning of our parsha.
This is the day that all of Am Yisrael has been waiting for: the inauguration of the Mishkan. Aaron and his sons have been instructed by Moshe about the sacrifices that should be brought, and the blood that should be sprinkled, which until now it has been theoretical. Now is the time for the big show.
As Aaron and his sons exit the Tent of Meeting, they give the nation the Cohanic blessing. And then the nation holds their collective breath. Will God accept these sacrifices and this worship?
The text then tells us, ‘Fire came forth from before the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and called out in joy, and fell on their faces” (Vayikra 9:24).
Joy. Exhilaration. Not only from Am Yisrael, but also from God. The Talmud teaches that, “On that day there was joy before the Holy One, Blessed be He, similar to the day on which the heavens and earth were created” (Megiliah 10B).
But in the blink of an eye, the joy turned into mourning. For reasons unknown, Aaron’s two eldest sons lit a fire in their firepan, put incense in it, and offered it on the altar. The text calls their offering an aish zarah, a foreign offering, an offering which was not commanded.
“And fire came forth from the LORD and consumed them; thus they died before the LORD” (Vayikra 10:2). Instead of the incense being the offering, Aaron’s two sons became the sacrifice. And the text gives hints but no direct reason for their tragic end.
Though many explanations are given by the commentators, I think the simplest reason is as the text itself states; they brought an offering that was not commanded. But why? What would compel them to improvise when they understood the precise nature of the sacrifices?
Could it be that they were so caught up in the excitement of the moment? The revelation of Hashem, the fire from heaven, the acceptance of their sacrifices. The energy must have been intoxicating. And so as a desire to personally experience this closeness to the Divine, they brought a fire of their own, one that was not commanded. Their intentions were exemplary, but the consequences were fatal.
According to this reading, Nadav and Avihu’s death was the consequence of their acting out of their spontaneous desires, despite their altruism.
But are all spontaneous spiritual desires out of bounds? Is there no place to serve God through one’s heart? Over Pesach we read about an incredible moment of spontaneous song and praise of Hashem: Miriam and the women of Am Yisrael after they crossed the sea.
So what’s the difference between the song of Miriam and the offerings of Nadav and Avihu?
When I think about spontaneity and improvisation, I think about one of my musical loves, jazz music, which came about from playing drums in my high school jazz band. To this day I get chills from hearing Miles Davis’ trumpet on All Blues. And at the heart of jazz music is the improvised solo.
But the solo can’t exist outside of the music of the rest of the band. The great jazz pianist Oscar Peterson once said, “It’s the group sound that’s important, even when you’re playing a solo. You not only have to know your own instrument, you must know all the others and how to back them up at all times. That’s jazz.”
And so if we try to draw a distinction between Miriam and Nadav and Avihu, maybe we could say that Miriam was in tune not only with herself, but also the entire nation. Her song gave all the women the space to express themselves.
But Nadav and Avihu’s spontaneity was out of tune, and out of line. Instead of experiencing the moment with the rest of the nation; they wanted to take something from the moment for themselves. That is something that G-d did not command.
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