Playing With Fire

  • Rav Zvi Shimon


In this week's parasha, we read about the culmination of the consecration of the mishkan. It is the apex of a very lengthy section in the Torah which commences in parashat Teruma (Shemot, chapter 25) and spans over twenty chapters. The people of Israel have given their generous contributions for the construction of the Mishkan. The craftsmen have labored with utter devotion, arduously applying their skills. The kohanim have studied all the laws relating to the sacrifices and have completed their ordination period, remaining at the entrance of the Ohel Moed day and night for seven days. Our parasha opens on the eighth day, the day which has been so eagerly anticipated, the day that God will appear before the people and dwell in the Mishkan:

Aharon lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he stepped down after offering the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the offering of well being. Moshe and Aharon then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of HaShem appeared to all the people. FIRE CAME FORTH FROM BEFORE HASHEM and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces. (9:22-24)

God accepts the sacrifices of the people and an awesome fire descends from the heavens consuming the offerings on the altar. The people are ecstatic and shout with joy. However, the joy and exhilaration are short-lived. Bliss turns to sorrow as the event is marred by a horrible tragedy:

Now Aharon's sons Nadav and Avihu each took his censer, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before HaShem alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. And FIRE CAME FORTH FROM HASHEM and consumed them; thus they died before HaShem. (10:1,2)

According to the Rashbam, the same divine fire which consumes the offerings on the altar, expressing God's satisfaction with his people and arousing their delight, also consumes Aharon's sons, Nadav and Avihu. What was the sin of Nadav and Avihu that brought upon them such a horrible punishment? Why was God so angry at them?

A. The Sin

The verse states that Nadav and Avihu offered before HaShem an "Eish Zara asher lo tziva otam," an "alien fire" which God had not instructed them to offer. The commentators disagree as to the interpretation of this verse. The Bekhor Shor (Rabbi Yoseph Ben Yitzchak Bekhor Shor, France, twelfth-century) and the Chizkuni (Rabbi Chizkiya ben Manoach, France, mid-thirteenth century) interpret the clause 'asher lo tziva otam' as a prohibition. God explicitly forbade them to offer this offering. The clause 'asher lo tziva otam' should not be understood as stating that God had NOT INSTRUCTED them to offer but rather should be understood as 'asher tziva otam lo,' stating that God explicitly FORBADE them from offering their sacrifice.

There are two advantages to this interpretation. The first advantage is textual. Once the Torah describes the offering as "alien fire," it is obvious that God did not command them to offer it. This is the reason why it is referred to as an alien fire. By adding 'asher lo tziva otam,' the Torah informs us that God also PROHIBITED the offering. The second advantage of this interpretation relates to the content of the narrative. It is much easier to understand the harsh punishment as retribution for disobeying God than for the offering of a sacrifice which was not commanded.

However, there are certain obvious difficulties with this interpretation. First, if this interpretation is correct, than the phrasing of the clause is odd. A clearer formulation would have been 'asher tziva otam LO,' Which God commanded not [to offer]. A second difficulty with the interpretation is that it portrays Nadav and Avihu as people who are rebellious to the extent of disobeying an explicit command of God. This is difficult, especially in light of their background and function as priests.

The majority of the commentators interpret the clause as in our translation, "an alien fire which God had not instructed them to offer." Their sin was not of disobeying God but rather offering an "alien fire" which was not commanded of them. What was this alien fire which ignited God's wrath?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers the following explanation:

The offering itself appears in every way illegal. The censers as well as the fire and the incense were all against the law. All the utensils must belong to the congregation and be holy. By giving his offering over into a national vessel of the Sanctuary, the bringer, together with his offering, enters within the framework of the national sanctuary of the Torah, and thereby gives himself up to all its demands, to the exclusion of any decisions made according to his own ideas. But the censers of Nadav and Avihu were each HIS OWN; they approached God, not with the vessels of the Sanctuary, but with their own, without self-renunciation. They put a fire in the censer, more precisely an alien fire, from their own hearths, as Rabbi Akiva explains - not fire from the altar. And, finally, the incense itself. Incense was the one sacrificial substance which was not permitted to be brought as a voluntary donation by the community nor the individual. The bringing of incense was to remain restricted exclusively to that which was prescribed for the community daily and for the high priest on Yom Kippur.

Nadav and Avihu desecrated the Mishkan by using their own private utensils and by bringing an alien fire, not fire from the altar but from a normal fireplace. Their sin was in performing tasks of a holy nature with the improper tools.

The Rashbam takes a different approach:

Even before the heavenly fire had descended they [Nadav and Avihu] had already taken their censers to burn incense on the altar of gold since the incense offered in the morning precedes the offering of animal sacrifices (see Shemot 30:7); and they put in [the censers] an alien fire which Moshe had not commanded on THIS DAY. Though on other days it is written "And the sons of Aharon the priest shall put fire upon the altar" (1:7), on this day Moshe did not desire that they bring a man-made fire, since they were anticipating the descent of a heavenly fire; therefore the bringing of a different fire was not desired in order that God's name should be sanctified and that all would know that the fire came from the heavens.

In contrast to Rabbi Hirsch who interprets an alien fire as an unholy fire originating not from the altar but from an unholy source, the Rashbam posits that the fire was indeed taken from the altar. It was foreign not because of its source but rather because of its timing. On the day that God was to appear through a heavenly fire before the whole congregation, man-made fire was undesirable. It would only limit the extent of the miracle. Nadav and Avihu's sin was not the desecration of the Mishkan but rather the detrimental interference in the miraculous events of the day.

[The assumption of the Rashbam is that Nadav and Avihu acted before the descent of the heavenly fire on the altar, and they were consumed by it. The Rashbam does not explain why the Torah recounts the narrative of Nadav and Avihu only after the heavenly fire. The apparent reason is to separate the awesome and glorious appearance of God in the Mishkan and the tragic death of Nadav and Avihu. Although they occurred simultaneously, the Torah separates them so as not to detract from God's momentous appearance.]

The midrash in Vayikra Rabba offer several explanations of the sin of Nadav and Avihu. We will cite two of them:

Bar Kappara in the name of Rabbi Yirmiya ben Eleazar said: Aharon's sons died... for drawing near [to the holy place], since they entered into the innermost precincts of the sanctuary, [and] for offering, since they offered a sacrifice which they had not been commanded offer.

It is not only that Nadav and Avihu sinned in offering an "alien fire," they also sinned by trespassing into sections of the Mishkan which they should have not entered. What is the textual source for this explanation? In the continuation of the book of Leviticus the deaths of Nadav and Avihu are mentioned: "HaShem spoke to Moshe after the death of the two sons of Aharon who died when they drew (too) close to the presence of HaShem" (16:1). Here there is no mention of the sinful offering, only of a prohibited "closeness" to God's presence, to the Holy of Holies in the Mishkan. Even without the forbidden offering, Nadav and Avihu would still have received the punishment of death simply for entering sections of the Mishkan which were forbidden.

B. The Cause

So far we have dealt with the essence of the sin of Nadav and Avihu. We will now turn our attention to their motive, the cause which led them to perpetrate the sin. Where did they go wrong? What caused men of such stature to fall to their doom?

The Sifra offers the following explanation:

"And Aharon's sons Nadav and Avihu each took his censer"- They, in their joy, since they saw a new fire [the heavenly fire], they came to add love to love.

Nadav and Avihu were so overjoyed by God's acceptance of the sacrifices that they decided to add another offering. Their enthusiasm and excitement led them to instinctively perform deeds without contemplating their desirability and taking the proper precautions. The awesome love of God that Nadav and Avihu possessed overshadowed their fear of God. This imbalance, the overflowing of love unchecked by the restraining influence of the fear of God, led to the sin of Nadav and Avihu. In contrast to the ecstatic frenzied states characteristic of modes of worship in Eastern religions, the worship of God, as prescribed by the Torah, warns against a loss of control. Love must always be accompanied by the fear of God. It is the combination of the two which creates the desirable state of mind necessary for a close relationship with God.

Rabbi Hirsch offers an alternative explanation:

More than anything else the Word of God stresses that God had not commanded them. Even if the various phases of the offering had not themselves been wrong, as we have seen that they were, the fact that it was not a "bidden" one would have sufficed to make it a forbidden one. No place is allowed in the whole service of the offerings of the Sanctuary of the Torah for subjectively doing just what you think right. Even the free-will offerings have to be kept meticulously within the limits of the forms and kinds prescribed for them. For the proximity of and getting near to God, which is the purpose of every offering, is only to be found by the way of obedience, by compliance with God's Will and subordination to it. This is one of the points in which Judaism and Paganism go in diametrically opposite directions. The Pagan brings his offering in an attempt to make the god subservient to his wishes. The Jew, with his offering, wishes to place himself in the service of God; by his offering he wishes to make himself subservient to the wishes of his God. So that all offerings are formulae of the demands of God, which the bringer, by his offering, undertakes to make the normal routine for his future life. So that self- devised offerings would be a killing of just those very truths which our offerings are meant to impress upon the bringers, would be placing a pedestal on which to glorify one's own ideas, where a throne was meant to be built for obedience, and obedience only. We can understand that the death of the priestly youths, and their death in the first moment of the consecration of the Sanctuary of God, is the most solemn warning for all future priests of this Sanctuary; it excludes from the precincts of the Sanctuary of God - which was to be nothing else but the Sanctuary of His Torah - every expression of caprice, and every subjective idea of what is right and becoming! Not by fresh inventions even of God-serving novices, but by carrying out that which is ordained by God has the Jewish priest to establish the authenticity of his activities.

Nadav and Avihu had misunderstood their task as kohanim. They were searching for self-expression and an outlet for their creativity. As a result Nadav and Avihu became absorbed in their own ideas, as they attempted to create novel forms of worship. They did not understand that the Mishkan was not a place for individual creative expression. It is God, and only God, who determines the framework for His worship. The Torah describes in great detail all the laws of the sacrificial worship. Any straying from these laws is a desecration of the Mishkan, and an undesirable and alien form of worship.

Our Sages offer another explanation for Nadav and Avihu's downfall:

"And Aharon's sons Nadav and Avihu each took his censer"(10:1)- "Aharon's sons"-[teaches us that] they did not seek advice from Aharon, "Nadav and Avihu"- [teaches us that] they did not seek advice from Moshe, "each took his censer" [teaches us that] they did not seek advice from one another" (Sifra, Acharei Mot 1)

Our sages infer from scripture that Nadav and Avihu acted independently without asking anyone with regard to the desirability of their actions. The last two textual inferences are clear. Moshe' name does not appear in the verse since he was not approached by Nadav and Avihu. Likewise, the verse emphasizes that Nadav and Avihu each acted independent of the other, each taking his own censer. However the first inference is obscure. How do our sages infer from the clause "And Aharon's sons" that Aharon was not consulted? The fact that Aharon's name appears in the verse would seem to imply the opposite, that he was involved in their deed! The Netziv explains that the source for the inference is the order of the verse. When the Torah states people's parentage it usually does so after giving the name of the individual. Here the order is the opposite. The Torah does not state 'Nadav and Avihu, Aharon's sons' but rather "And Aharon's sons Nadav and Avihu." The change in order teaches us that although Aharon was their father he did not influence them and was not involved in their misdeed. The appearance of Aharon at the beginning of the verse teaches that his influence was only in the past but not in the present behavior of his sons.

According to this explanation of our sages, the downfall of Nadav and Avihu stemmed from over-confidence. They did not deem it necessary to seek advice from their elders and teachers. Furthermore, they acted without hearing a second opinion, and they did not even discuss their plan amongst themselves! This hyper-individualism and rashness brought about their tragic end.

Shadal's (Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto, Italy, 1800-1865) understanding of the cause of Nadav and Avihu's sin is even more critical:

They sinned due to haughtiness. They were not satisfied with being helpers of their father as is written: "Aharon's sons passed the blood to him" (9:12). They wanted to show that they too were the priests of God like their father, and since Moshe had not assigned them any independent function, they chose a lucrative one and presented an alien offering.

It was their hunger for prominence and prestige that led them to sin. They held very important positions but were unhappy so long as they didn't enjoy a dominant role. Therefore, they independently tried to take on more central functions and they used the Mishkan as a locus for their growth in power and political advancement. This desecration of their spiritual position and its usage for self-aggrandizement was what led to their ultimate failure and consequently a harsh punishment was incurred.

Rashi, citing our sages, offers a completely different explanation of the cause of Nadav and Avihu's sin:

Rabbi Yishmael said: They died because they entered the Sanctuary intoxicated by wine. You may know that this is so, because after their death he admonished those who survived that they should not enter when intoxicated by wine.

Nadav and Avihu sinned because they were druand consequently, they were not careful in the performance of their duties. Entrance into the sanctuary demands utmost seriousness and reverence. It is no place for flippancy and frivolity. Nadav and Avihu entered the sanctuary in an improper state of mind which led to an improper form of worship. Rabbi Yishmael learns this from the fact that immediately after the death of Nadav and Avihu, God speaks to Aharon:

And HaShem spoke to Aharon, saying: Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is a law for all time throughout the ages, for you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean." (10:8-10)

Whichever explanation of the cause of Nadav and Avihu's sinning we adopt, the punishment appears extremely harsh. The severity of God's reaction is undoubtedly a consequence of the location of the sin and the identity of the sinners. The Netziv comments on the clause: "and they died BEFORE GOD" (10:2), that it comes to explain why Nadav and Avihu were punished so severely. Since they were before God, in his sanctuary, he dealt with them in the most stringent manner and without mercy. Proximity to holiness demands utmost care. Sin in the sanctuary is magnified and becomes all the more severe. However it is not only the location but also the identity of the sinners which incurred such a harsh reaction. This is perhaps the meaning behind Moshe' words to Aharon following his sons' death: "This is what HaShem meant when He said, Through THOSE NEAR TO ME I show myself holy..." (10:3). Rabbi Hirsch comments on this verse:

The more anybody stands in front of the people as a leader and teacher in their relation to God, the less does God overlook his mistakes.... Had Aharon's sons not been so close to God, pardon might have perhaps been granted to them, and the tragic fate which God so immediately dealt them would not have been such a weighty warning to the people. In sharpest contrast to the modern point of view which regards spiritual and intellectual greatness as a free pass for moral laxness, and grants men of intellect a greater consideration in lapses against God's laws of morality, the Jewish point of view raises the strictness of the demands for morality with each higher degree of intellectuality.

God is most exacting with those who are closest to him. The assumption of leadership positions, especially in the religious domain, demands exemplary moral behavior. The potential and the responsibility for sanctifying God's name when in a position of leadership is all the greater. Likewise the punishment incurred for, God forbid, desecrating His name is much more severe. No Biblical narrative illustrates this idea more powerfully than the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu.


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