By Rav Chanoch Waxman
The deaths of Nadav and Avihu constitute one of the more mysterious events of Sefer Vayikra. The Torah presents the story in no more than two short verses:
And Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and offered before the Lord a strange fire, which He had not commanded them. And a fire went out from the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. (10:1-2)
Although the Torah does refer to the offering of “a strange fire that had not been commanded,” the underlying reason for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the cause of the violent punishment they suffer, remains obscure, hidden behind the veil of the Torah’s brief account.
In contrast to the opacity of the Torah’s brief presentation, Midrash Vayikra Rabba (20:6) elaborates no less than twelve distinct explanations for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. The possibilities include their having entered the holy of holies without being commanded, having been drunk at the time of their offering, or having delivered a halakhic ruling in front of their master Moshe.
This just sharpens the problem of the text’s brevity. The plethora of midrashic explanations merely highlights the lack of clear explanation in the text of the Torah. If so, what exactly constitutes the sin of Nadav and Avihu, the “real cause” of their deaths?
Let us begin by taking a look at the aftermath of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. Immediately after reporting the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the Torah presents a strange “conversation” between Moshe and Aharon:
Then Moshe said to Aharon, This is what the Lord said: “I will be sanctified in those that come near to Me (bi-kerovai ekadeish), and before all the people I will be glorified (ekaveid).” And Aharon was silent. (10:3)
In fact, this “conversation” is not a conversation at all. Aharon responds with silence. Apparently, Moshe’s claim that the deaths of Nadav and Avihu somehow conform with God’s statement that He will be sanctified and glorified with that which “comes near to Him” silences Aharon. Somehow, Moshe’s statement “explains” the deaths of Nadav and Avihu and perhaps even consoles Aharon. Hence his silence.
But this seems completely obscure. When did God say this? For that matter, what is the connection between God’s sanctification and glory through “kerovai” (translated as either “those who are close to Me,” “that which comes near Me,” or even “offerings”) and the deaths of Nadav and Avihu?
As Rashi (10:3) points out, Moshe’s statement probably refers to a key passage located at the end of Chapter Twenty-nine of Shemot. After delineating the procedure of the miluim, the seven-day installation of the priests and dedication of the Mishkan, and outlining the rules for daily sacrifices, the Torah states:
This shall be a continuous burnt offering throughout your generations at the door of the Tent of Meeting before the Lord… And I will meet there with the Children of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by My glory (ve-nikdash bi-kevodi)… And I will dwell among the Children of Israel… (Shemot 29:42-45)
At the culmination of the miluim process and through the initiation of daily sacrifices, God’s glory, i.e. presence, will descend to the Mishkan and dwell there. This will sanctify and glorify the Mishkan and God in the eyes of the Children of Israel.
This prediction comes to fruition right before the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. Vayikra 9:23-24 details how after the bringing of the final offerings of the eighth day, God’s glory appeared to the eyes of all of Israel in order to sanctify and dwell in the Mishkan.
… and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. And a fire came out from before the Lord and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering… and when the people saw, they cried out and fell upon their faces. (9:23:24)
To put this all together, when Moshe tells Aharon that God had said “bi-kerovai ekadeish,” when he uses the key terms of “offering/coming close,” “glory,” and “sanctification,” he reminds Aharon that God’s presence is now located in the Mishkan. If so, then when Nadav and Avihu offered in the Mishkan a non-mandated, strange and alien offering of incense, they entered into the very presence of God.
By no accident, the Torah utilizes the phrase “va-yakrivu lifnei Hashem” to describe the process of their incense offering. Whether we interpret the phrase as referring to no more that the fact that they offered incense to the Lord, or like the Midrash, as referring to the fact that they themselves ventured into the holy of holies, makes not a whit of difference. Either way, they have improperly entered the presence and compound of the Lord. Consequently, they are consumed.
By no accident, they are consumed by fire, the visual image of the glory of God seen by Israel at Sinai. Just as the Israelites saw the glory of God as a “consuming fire” atop the mountain (Shemot 24:17), so too Nadav and Avihu are “consumed” by “fire” (Vayikra 10:2).
Finally, by no accident, the text utilizes the same phrase for God’s “consumption” of the offering upon the altar and the devouring of Nadav and Avihu. In the case of the offering, we are told, “And a fire came out from in front of the Lord and consumed the burnt offering” (9:24). So too in the case of Nadav and Avihu, the text states: “And a fire came out from in front of the Lord and consumed them” (10:2).
On this interpretation, we need not locate a particular moral failing on the part of Nadav and Avihu. In a certain sense they need not have “sinned.” Their very act of unwarranted trespass, of non-commanded entry and offering, is the cause of their death. We may even claim that their deaths contain an element or “spark” of holiness. They die “before the Lord” (10:2) and are mourned by all of Israel (10:6).
The Netziv (10:1) famously maintains that the “strange fire” (10:1) represented an excess of love of God in their hearts, an overly bold desire to approach God. Although it may be extreme, this interpretation allows us to view Moshe’s claim to Aharon of “bi-kerovai ekadeish” and the parallel between the consumption of the offering upon the altar and the consumption of Nadav and Avihu as rendering Nadav and Avhihu themselves as “offerings” to God. They have unwittingly transformed themselves into actual offerings and been consumed by his presence.
The mechanistic or unwitting-offering interpretation approach outlined above should go a long way towards explaining the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. Nevertheless, identifying the cause of their deaths is but one of the challenges in reading the Torah’s presentation of the tragedy.
As mentioned previously, the text devotes a mere two verses to reporting the core action (10:1-2). Nevertheless, the entire corpus of Chapter Ten revolves around the deaths and their aftermath. To cite an example already discussed, in the very next verse Moshe “explains” the death of Nadav and Avihu to Aharon. Likewise, the chapter includes sections detailing the removal of Nadav and Avihu’s bodies from the sanctuary (10:4-5), forbidding Aharon and his sons from active mourning (10:6-7), and outlining rules for proper priestly conduct (10:9-11).
Finally, the chapter concludes with a dialogue between Moshe, Aharon and the “remaining sons” of Aharon (10:12-20). The conversation includes Moshe’s commands regarding the proper disposition of the offerings made that day (10:12-15), his demand for a “missing” sin offering which had been burnt rather than eaten by the priests, his anger at the “remaining sons” for mishandling the offering (10:16-18), and Aharon’s reference to the tragedy that had befallen him that day (10:19). All of this can be mapped as follows:
|Sec.||Topic and link to death||Verses|
|One||The offering, death and explanation to Aharon||10:1-3|
|Two||The removal of the bodies from the sanctuary||10:4-5|
|Three||The prohibition of active mourning by the priests, i.e. Aharon and his sons||10:6-7|
|Four||A code of priestly behavior, including rules for entering the sanctuary and general priestly responsibilities||10:9-11|
|Five||The “resumption of the eighth day” – the dialogue referring to the “remaining sons” of Aharon and Aharon’s tragedy||10:12-20|
Summarizing the chapter in this way leaves us with the expectation of some sort of essential connection between its various parts. While events do unfold in chronological order, something more than mere chronology seems to unite the chapter. We expect to find a thematic connection between the deaths, on the one hand, and the latter sections, such as the “code of priestly behavior” and the “resumption of the eighth day,” on the other. If so, what constitutes the guiding concept and organizational principle of the chapter?
At first glance, we may be inclined to make use of the concepts developed above. Until now, we have explained the deaths of Nadav and Avihu as deriving from unwitting trespass upon the presence of God. In other words, they commit a fateful error in “hilkhot kodshim,” the laws of sanctity. Not fully cognizant of the sacred status of the area they enter and the proper conditions for the act of incense offering, they are inevitably consumed.
Likewise, the remainder of the chapter can be viewed as connected to the issue of the status of “sanctity” and the proper mode of relation to sanctified entities, areas and objects. Sections two and three, the removal of the bodies from the sanctuary by others than the priests, and the prohibition of mourning by the priests, close with the explanatory phrase, “for the anointing oil of the Lord is upon you” (10:7). The priests cannot defile themselves by contact with the bodies, participate in public rituals of mourning, or even leaving the door of the tent of meeting (10:7), because they are priests. They are sanctified entities and must be wary of their status.
So too, section five, the “resumption of the eighth day,” can be viewed as revolving around the very same issue of relation to sanctity. In section five, the dialogue with Aharon and his “remaining sons,” Moshe delivers instructions on how to deal with the offerings made that day and where and how the priests should consume them (10:12-15). His anger at the “remaining sons” stems from their apparent disregard of the details of the laws of “most holy” objects and their careless burning, as opposed to eating, of the sin offering (10:16-18). As Nadav and Avihu disregarded the details of permitted and forbidden, commanded and not commanded, so too the “remaining sons” now disregard the laws of sanctity.
Finally, section four, the “priestly code,” also appears to fit this theme. The opening law of the conduct code consists of the rule of sobriety for entering the sanctuary and the accompanying possibility of death (10:9). After the deaths of Nadav and Avihu upon entering the sanctuary and the assignment of entering the sanctuary to remove the bodies to non-priests (10:4), the Torah continues to discourse upon the theme of the proper relation between priests and the act of entering the sanctuary. One may enter the sacred place only under certain conditions.
Nevertheless, this is not enough. The full text of the mini-parasha detailing the code of priestly conduct runs as follows:
And the Lord spoke to Aharon, saying, Do not drink wine or strong drink, you nor your sons when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die; it is a everlasting law throughout the generations. And you shall distinguish between the holy and unholy and between unclean and clean. And you shall teach the Children of Israel all of the laws which the Lord has spoken to them through Moses. (10:9-11)
While the motif of sanctity and relation to sanctity may be enough to explain just about everything connected to the deaths of Nadav and Avihu and the structure of Chapter Ten, it does not explain the inclusion of all of the priest’s code. While the function of distinguishing between holy and unholy and perhaps clean and unclean requires little explanation, the focus on the general Torah teaching function of the priest seems surprising. What is the connection between the “laws of sanctity” and the role of the priests as teachers of Israel and teachers of the law?
Rather than reach for the obvious and elaborate upon the status of law as sacred object, the priests as custodians of the sacred, and so on, I would like to return to the “strange fire” of Nadav and Avihu and focus on a hitherto neglected aspect of the story.
The tragedy of Nadav and Avihu’s deaths did not occur in a vacuum. Rather, the Torah carefully links the story of their death with the events reported in Chapter Nine, the story of the eighth day.
On the simplest level, reading Parashat Shemini leaves the impression that they died almost immediately after the crescendo of the events of the eighth day, the appearance of God’s presence and the consumption of the Children of Israel’s offering by the divine fire (9:23-10:2). Moreover, as pointed out above, the Torah parallels the consumption of the offering and the consumption of Nadav and Avihu by utilizing the exact same language to describe the two events. In both cases, a fire goes out from before the Lord and consumes (9:24, 10:2). Perhaps based upon this parallel, Rashbam maintains that the two events happened simultaneously.
But this is not all. Throughout Chapter Nine, which recounts the events of the eight day, the Torah makes extensive use of the term “come close/approach/offer,” based upon the verb stem k-r-v, and the term “command” (tz-v-h). For example, consider the following verses:
And Moshe said: This is the thing which the Lord COMMANDED (tziva) you to do, and the glory of God shall appear to you. And Moshe said to Aharon: APPROACH (kerav) the altar and perform your sin offering and burnt offering and make atonement for yourself and for the people, and make the offering (korban) of the people and atone for them as the Lord COMMANDED (tziva). And Aharon APPROACHED (va-yikrav) to the altar… (9:6-8)
Altogether, the term “command” appears five times throughout the chapter (9:5, 6, 7, 10, 21). Not including the variation of “korban,” the term “approach/offer” appears eight times (9:2, 5, 7, 8, 9, 15, 16, 17). The chapter seems to build up a complex of concepts to foreshadow the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. In what might be thought of as a “reversing parallel,” the Torah utilizes the exact same terms to describe the fateful act of Nadav and Avihu.
… and they offered/approached/brought close (va-yakrivu) before the Lord a strange fire, which He had NOT commanded (tziva) them. (10:1)
The essence of Nadav and Avihu’s error lies in not apprehending this connection between “command” and “approach.” The appearance of God’s presence, atonement, coming close to God and the like depends on carrying out the precise commands of God. Only by virtue of fulfillment of the exact command can one achieve “closeness” with God.
It is precisely their creativity, their substitution of self and their own version of worship in place of the mechanical motions of God’s commands that constitutes their error and the cause of their deaths. In other words, their death results from far more than an unwitting straying into the precincts of the Lord and the automatic result of encounter with the presence of God. Their death results from a fundamental misconception of what priesthood is about and what it means to serve God.
While this may seem rather striking, the larger context of the overall “miluim” narrative may support this interpretation.
As of the beginning of the execution of the miluim instructions, Aharon and his sons appear to possess near equal status. Chapter Eight of Sefer Vayikra, the story of the seven days of miluim, opens with the command to “take Aharon and his sons with him” (8:2). Just as Moshe brings Aharon to the door of the Tent of Meeting to wash and dress him, so too he brings the sons of Aharon to the door of the Tent of Meeting to wash and dress them (8:6-13). The sons of Aharon also place their hands on the heads of the various offerings (8:14, 18, 22), have blood placed upon them (8:23-24), participate in the wave offering (8:27), and consume the bread and meat of the miluim offerings (8:31). In fact, every mention of Aharon carries with it either a modifier of “and his sons” or a parallel process performed on or by his sons (see 8:2, 6, 13-14, 18, 22, 24, 27, 30-31, 36).
But on the eighth day (at the beginning of Parashat Shemini), a radical shift ensues. Although the eighth day opens with Moshe’s calling to “Aharon, his sons and the elders of Israel” (9:1), the instructions for the procedures of the eighth day are addressed to either Aharon or the Children of Israel (9:2-4). It is Aharon, and Aharon alone, who is told to take various animals and “approach/offer before the Lord” (9:2, 7-8). It is Aharon alone who performs the central rites and offerings of the day (see 9:12, 14-18, 21), and he, along with Moshe, who blesses the people (9:22-23). While Aharon plays the key role in causing the descent of the divine presence to the Mishkan, his sons are reduced to no more than drawers of blood and choppers of meat. They perform no acts of divine service and merely assist Aharon in handling the materials (9:9, 12-13, 18). The main action seems to take place between Aharon, the divine presence, and Israel.
All this should shed new light on the subsequent acts of Nadav and Avihu, explicitly identified as “the sons of Aharon,” and their taking of “ish machtato,” each man HIS firepan. Their offering “before the Lord” (10:1) constitutes a radical reassertion of the role and significance of the “the sons of Aharon.” They too are capable of serving before the Lord. They too are priests, the spiritual elite chosen by God to draw down His presence amongst the Children of Israel. They choose incense, with its obvious symbolism linking the cloud and the divine presence, and seek to come close to God. Once again, the story turns out to be about the self, the spiritual voice and the revolutionary religion of the sons of Aharon.
To close the circle, all of this should help provide new perspective on the structure of Chapter Ten, on the conceptual connection between the death of Nadav and Avihu on the one hand and Moshe’s critique of the “remaining sons” and the “code of priestly conduct” on the other.
As mentioned previously, the core of section five, the “dialogue of the remaining sons” or “the resumption of the eighth day,” involves Moshe’s search for the “missing” sin offering.
And Moshe sought out the goat of the sin offering and behold, it was burnt, and he was angry with Elazar and Itamar, Aharon’s remaining sons, and said: Why did you not eat the sin offering in the sacred area? For it is most holy, and He has given it to you bear the guilt of the community to make atonement for them before the Lord. (10:16-17)
Moshe accuses the remaining priests not just of violating the technicalities of the laws of sanctified objects, but of a fundamental dereliction of duty. If the priests do not consume the sin offering in the appropriate matter, it does not achieve atonement for the people ofIsrael.
In fact, the text only mentions a sin offering of a goat at one other point in the narrative. The Children of Israel are commanded to bring as their first joint offering, a “goat for a sin offering,” as preface to atonement and the descent of the divine presence (9:3-4). In other words, in accusing the priests of mishandling the sin offering, Moshe accuses the brothers of Nadav and Avihu of acting not on behalf of the Children of Israel but rather on behalf of themselves, in accordance with their own priorities, interpretation of priesthood and spiritual agenda. He accuses them of the error of Nadav and Avihu, of serving themselves rather than God and Israel.
This brings us back to the inclusion of the code of priestly conduct and its connection to the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. We no longer need wonder about the inclusion of a code of priestly conduct, consisting of a demand for sobriety, strict concern for the technicalities, distinctions and minutiae of the law, and the teaching of Torah to the people of Israel. After all, priesthood is not about an ecstatic approach to God. It is not about the individual experience nor the spiritual and psychic elevation of the priest. Nor is priesthood about the self, the spiritual priorities, desires and needs of the priest. As the story of Nadav and Avihu aptly demonstrates, it is about careful adherence to the law, about serving the law and the people of Israel. Only through his service of the law and the people of Israel does the priest merit to come before God.
For Further Study
1) As mentioned above, Vayikra Rabba 20:6 cites twelve distinct opinions regarding the sin of Nadav and Avihu. i) See Rashi 10:2. Try to explain why Rashi chooses to cite these two opinions. Alternatively, try to base these two opinions on the text utilizing the material in the shiur. ii) One of the midrashic opinions mentioned in shiur maintains that Nadav and Avihu entered the holy of holies. See 10:1-2, 16:1-5, 12-13. Do these verses prove this position? iii) See Ramban 10:2 and Shemot 29:30. What is the function of incense according to Ramban? Does Ramban assume the midrash mentioned above? Try to deduce exactly what opinion Ramban maintains regarding the sin of Nadav and Avihu.
2) Reread 10:3. See Rashbam, Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Ramban 10:3. i) How does Rashbam’s position differ fundamentally from the other commentaries? Explain how Rashbam’s interpretation creates thematic unity in 10:3-7. Compare this view to the structural claims in the shiur. ii) What constitutes the fundamental point(s) of difference between Rashi and Ramban? iii) How do all of these commentaries differ fundamentally from the interpretation of “bi-kerovai ekadeish” proposed in the shiur? (Define the referent of “bi-kerovai.”)
3) Read 9:1-3. See Rashi 9:2. Compare Shemot 32:8 and Vayikra 10:2. Think about the relationship between the sin of the golden calf and the sin of Nadav and Avihu. Are they conceptually parallel in some crucial way? Try to differentiate between Aharon’s role in the two stories.
4) Scan 11:1-47. Read 11:44-47 carefully. Reread 10:8-11. Explain why the parasha is located at this point. See Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Ramban 11:1. Why is the parasha addressed also to Aharon?