The sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu… brought before G-d a strange fire that He did not command them (to bring). Fire came forth from G-d and it consumed them, and they died before G-d (10:1-2).
The commentators discuss the precise reasons for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. The Sifra (Shemini, 1:32) states that they erred in having brought their offering of ketoret (frankincense) into the Kodesh Ha-Kadashim (holiest part of the Tabernacle) on their own initiative. Although they did this act out of love for the Almighty, they had not been asked to serve Him in that manner. For this area was forbidden territory to all except the High Priest on Yom Kippur. The Ramban (in his comments to 10:2 and 16:2) questions this reason, hinting that they offered the regular daily ketoret on the Inner Altar when they had not been commanded to do so. Rashi quotes the variant traditions that are not directly implied in this text: that they impinged on Moses’ authority in giving a Halachic decision in his presence (R. Eliezer: Talmud Eruvin 63a), and that they entered the Sanctuary under the influence of wine (R. Ishmael: Vayikra Rabba 12:1).
Consider the following explanation: Nadav and Avihu died for the following two inter-related reasons. Firstly they had already incurred G-d’s anger because of their association with the Golden Calf. Secondly, by bringing the ‘strange fire’ they came too close to Him too quickly. These two points are expanded below.
Before Moses died, he rebuked the Israelites for the Sin of the Golden Calf. He recounted that ‘G-d became very angry with Aaron (and intended) to destroy him, so I also prayed for Aaron at that time’ (Deut. 9:20). Rashi on that verse quotes the Midrash Agadda that states that the word also in the text refers to G-d’s intention to kill the four sons of Aaron. However, Moses’ prayer on their behalf was partly accepted in that although Nadav and Avihu died soon afterwards, Elazar and Itamar stayed alive. These sources show that Aaron and his sons were in no state of grace before G-d at the time of the ‘strange fire’. Under those circumstances it would only take something relatively small to tip the scales against Nadav and Avihu.
That ‘small something’ is brought out when comparing the conduct of Aaron on one hand, and Nadav and Avihu on the other in this Parasha.
In the opening section, Moses had to persuade Aaron to approach the Altar to perform the necessary sacrifices for the dedication of the Tabernacle:
Moses said to Aaron: “Approach the Altar and perform the service of your… (offerings) as G-d has commanded” (9:7).
Rashi on this verse quotes Torat Kohanim as saying that Aaron was ashamed to approach the Altar. This appears to be because of his feelings of guilt over the Sin of the Golden Calf (implied through Rashi’s comment to 9:2). The Degel Machane Ephraim comments: “It is because you show shame that you have been chosen for this task – G-d despises the proud”.
Nadav and Avihu did not show such shyness and modesty. They offered a ‘strange fire’ on their own intitiative ‘before G-d’ – where the Divine Presence was at its most intense. In the circumstances this was an inappropriate display of familiarity with G-d. Such conduct can be compared ‘lehavdil’ to a student who has been severely rebuked by his teacher. A little later he approaches the teacher and offers him a ticket to a concert. Were he to accept the ticket he may be seen as removing the necessary barriers between teacher and student to ensure the success of the working relationship. This could harm his professional status in the long run: familiarity breeds contempt.
So the ‘strange fire’ was out of place in these circumstances. G-d did not accept it – His relationship with the Israelites required the more intense forms of the Divine Presence to be accessible in very special circumstances only. Nadav and Avihu’s act interfered with this relationship. It is therefore possible to suggest that their untimely deaths were because they offered the strange fire so soon after the Sin of the Golden Calf.
Do not defile yourselves with them (forbidden foods) and become contaminated by them (11:43).
The School of R. Yishmael teach that the word venitmeitem (and you become contaminated) includes venitamtem which means being spiritually defiled (Talmud, Yoma 39a). Rashi (ad loc.) explains that this means becoming insensitive to the entire Torah experience. With respect to the eating of forbidden foods, the Chinuch (Mitzva 73) notes that the harm caused by eating these foods is not physical. Rather they prevent a person from being able to ‘tune in’ to the Almighty, His Creation and His Commandments – in other words to reach higher spiritual levels. For that reason the Rema rules that it is forbidden to give small children non-kasher foods (Yoreh Deah 81:7).
This idea seems to be implied elsewhere in the Parasha. Two verses begin with the word Lehavdil (to distinguish). The first time is in the context of the prohibition of the Priests performing their duties under the influence of strong drink: so that they should be able to ‘…distinguish between holy and profane, unclean and pure’ (10:10). The second time is in the final verse in the laws prohibiting specified types of foods: stating that all Israelites must be able to ‘…distinguish between unclean and pure; between creatures that may be eaten and those which may not be eaten’ (11:47).
From the above we may suggest the following. Alcohol clouds a person’s judgement to the extent that he cannot make fine enough ‘distinctions’ to serve in the Temple. Similarly the consumption of forbidden foods clouds one’s spiritual judgement to the extent of becoming less sensitive to the ‘distinctions’ the Torah requires people to make in their daily lives…
Many thanks to R. Yehoshua Cohen, and R. David Zitter, for their help and advice.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
For information on subscriptions, archives, and