Celebration turned to tragedy. The two eldest sons of Aaron die. The sages and commentators offer many explanations. Nadav and Avihu died because: they entered the holy of holies; they were not wearing the requisite clothes; they took fire from the kitchen, not the altar; they did not consult Moses and Aaron; nor did they consult one another. According to some they were guilty of hubris. They were impatient to assume leadership roles themselves; and they did not marry, considering themselves above such things. Yet others see their deaths as delayed punishment for an earlier sin, when, at Mount Sinai they “ate and drank” in the presence of God (Ex. 24: 9-11).
These interpretations represent close readings of the four places in the Torah which Nadav and Avihu’s death is mentioned (Lev. 10:2, 16: 1, Num. 3: 4, 26: 61), as well as the reference to their presence on Mount Sinai. Each is a profound meditation on the dangers of over-enthusiasm in the religious life. However, the simplest explanation is the one explicit in the Torah itself. Nadav and Avihu died because they offered unauthorized (literally “strange”) fire – meaning “that which was not commanded.”
To understand the significance of this we must go back to first principles and remind ourselves of the meaning of kadosh, “holy”, and thus of mikdash as the home of the holy.
The holy is that segment of time and space God has reserved for His presence. Creation involves concealment. The word olam, universe, is semantically linked to the word neelam, “hidden”. To give mankind some of His own creative powers – the use of language to think, communicate, understand, imagine alternative futures and choose between them – God must do more than create homo sapiens. He must efface Himself (what the kabbalists called tzimtzum) to create space for human action. No single act more profoundly indicates the love and generosity implicit in creation. God as we encounter Him in the Torah is like a parent who knows He must hold back, let go, refrain from intervening, if his children are to become responsible and mature…
The holy is that point of time and space in which the presence of God is encountered by tzimtzum – self-renunciation – on the part of mankind. Just as God makes space for man by an act of self-limitation, so man makes space for God by an act of self-limitation. The holy is where God is experienced as absolute presence. Not accidentally but essentially, this can only take place through the total renunciation of human will and initiative. That is not because God does not value human will and initiative. To the contrary: God has empowered mankind to use them to become His “partners in the work of creation”.
However, to be true to God’s purposes, there must be times and places at which humanity experiences the reality of the divine. Those times and places require absolute obedience. The most fundamental mistake – the mistake of Nadav and Avihu – is to take the powers that belong to man’s encounter with the world, and apply them to man’s encounter with the Divine. Had Nadav and Avihu used their own initiative to fight evil and injustice they would have been heroes. Because they used their own initiative in the arena of the holy, they erred. They asserted their own presence in the absolute presence of God. That is a contradiction in terms. That is why they died.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z"k (1948-2020) was the former Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth, and the International 929 president.
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