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Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire pan, placed fire on it, and then incense on it… but it was esh zara, unauthorized fire which G-d did not instruct them to offer. Fire went forth from G-d and consumed them; they died before G-d (10:1-2).
The commentators discuss the precise reasons for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu at length. The Sifra states that they erred in bringing their own ketoret (frankincense) before G-d, meaning into the holiest parts of the Mishkan - forbidden territory. The Ramban explains that they offered the regular daily ketoret on the Inner Altar, the mizbach ha-zahav, when they had not been commanded to do so.
Rashi, however, quotes various traditions in the Talmud (Eruvin 63a) which are not explicit in the text: that they impinged on Moses' authority in giving a Halachic decision in his presence (R. Eliezer), and that they entered the Sanctuary under the influence of wine (R. Yishmael). Elsewhere, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 52a) brings a different tradition, whereby Nadav remarked to Avihu that they themselves would lead the Israelites once the 'old men' Moses and Aaron died. Whereupon G-d rejoined with "We will see who will bury whom".
The Kli Yakar examines how these traditions fit into the text that quite clearly states that their deaths were in consequence of: "esh zara, which G-d did not instruct them to offer". The Kli Yakar does not explain esh zara as simply meaning 'unauthorized fire', but more specifically as 'fire brought in unacceptable circumstances'. Zar means strange, not fitting in. It was their element of arrogance, reflected in showing disrespect for Moses' authority, planning their take-over as Moses and Aaron's successors, or entering the holiest parts of the Tabernacle under the influence of alcohol that made their fire offering strange and quite unacceptable.
This becomes all the clearer when contrasted with their father, Aaron. Earlier, Moses had to persuade Aaron with "Approach the Altar and perform the service of your sin offering and burnt offering as G-d has commanded" (9:7).
Rashi explains that the persuasion was necessary: Aaron was ashamed to approach the Altar, very likely because of his feelings of guilt over his connection with the Chet Ha-Egel. (c.f. Rashi 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 an esh zara when they themselves showed unacceptable attitude and behavior. Where: in the interior of the Tabernacle, where the Shechina was most intense. When: in the public ceremony of the inauguration of the Tabernacle, when "fire came forth from G-d and consumed the burnt offering… the people saw, raised their voices in praise, and threw themselves on their faces". In the circumstances this was an unacceptable display of familiarity with G-d.
This is a crucial message to those serving in Jewish public positions today. Unacceptable attitude and behavior towards those they represent creates a chilul hashem, an act that brings the service towards G-d into disrepute. For as is well-known, the public tends to judge the cause of Torah according to the conduct of its representatives.
For those looking for more comprehensive material, questions and answers on the Parasha may be found at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/questions/ and on the material on the Haftara at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/haftara/ .
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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