Parshas Sh’mini presents the shocking sin and deaths of Nadav and Avihu. The pasuk describes how, during the Chanukas HaMishkan (Inauguration of the Tabernacle), Nadav and Avihu offered the k’tores (spice offering) and were engulfed by Divine flames (VaYikra 10:1-2). This episode is both striking and perplexing, as the p’sukim do not clarify what their sin was, or why it warranted such a harsh punishment. At face value, one might think that they acted righteously, sacrificing an offering to Hashem in the Mikdash. What, then, was so egregious about their actions? We will go through a range of possible answers to these questions as we ultimately develop a deeper understanding of this topic.
A Few Opinions in Brief
Rashi (VaYikra 10:1-2) quotes Rabbi Eliezer’s position (VaYikra Rabbah 12:1), that Nadav and Avihu violated the prohibition of being moreh bifnei rabbo – teaching halachah in front of their rebbe, Moshe Rabbeinu.
Another opinion, mentioned in the Sifra, is that Nadav and Avihu sinned by entering the Kodesh HaKodashim (the Holy of Holies). As the holiest place in the world, it is completely off limits to all except the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), and even for him it is only allowed on Yom Kippur. Evidence for this position is in Acharei Mos, the very next parshah, in which the Torah links the Yom Kippur avodah with the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. The Sifra suggests that this connection is due to the fact that the avodah of the k’tores, precisely what Nadav and Avihu performed, is done exclusively on Yom Kippur in the Kodesh HaKodashim. The fact that Nadav and Avihu are associated with this exclusive avodah hints to the fact that they performed it at the wrong time, and were therefore punished.
Rashi also quotes Rabbi Yishmael’s position – that their error lay in the fact that they were intoxicated while performing the avodah. This is based on the fact that the very next passage in the Torah prohibits a kohen from being drunk while performing the avodah. The juxtaposition of these verses is a hint towards the essence of their wrongdoing, as the prohibition follows an instance in which it was violated.
The Big Question
There is, however, something missing from all of these approaches. Rashi (VaYikra 10:3) quotes the Midrash, which explains that Moshe already knew that two of the holiest people in klal Yisrael would die on this very day, the day of the Chanukas HaMishkan. Moshe originally thought that these two people would be Aharon and himself, but it turned out to be Nadav and Avihu instead. This midrash makes it clear that Nadav and Avihu were on a tremendously lofty level. If so, how could they have done something so egregiously wrong, something that resulted in such a harsh heavenly punishment?
The Ramban therefore takes a different approach, suggesting that the only problem with Nadav and Avihu’s avodah was that they brought the k’tores offering without being commanded to do so. This view is drawn from the explicit statement of the pasuk itself, as it says that Nadav and Avihu brought an offering “asher lo tzivah osam” – that they were not commanded to bring (VaYikra 10:1).
Based on this, however, we face a new difficulty. If Nadav and Avihu’s sin was only that they did something that they were not commanded to do, our question is actually strengthened: What was so abhorrent about their actions that it merited such extreme punishment? Granted, Hashem did not command them to bring the k’tores, but they did nothing prohibited, only something that was not specifically commanded. In order to understand the answer to this new question, we must understand what it means to be commanded in the first place, as well as the difference between being m’tzuveh (commanded by Hashem) and eino m’tzuveh (not commanded by Hashem).
Gadol HaM’tzuveh MiMi SheEino M’tzuveh
The Gemara (Bava Kama 38a) states that it is greater for one to do something that he has been commanded to do by Hashem than to do so of his own volition, without being commanded (Gadol ha’m’tzuveh v’oseh mi’mi she’eino m’tzuveh v’oseh). Meaning, it is better to perform a mitzvah (commandment) out of obedience to Hashem’s will than to do so spontaneously, of your own will. At first glance, this appears counterintuitive. Would it not be better to do it of your own volition? Is this not a more genuine expression of Divine service? Instead of doing it because you have to, you’re doing it because you want to!
The first explanation for this puzzling statement lies in the concept of ego. As human beings, we are naturally resistant to external instruction or direction, preferring to do things only when we want to do them. Obedience to others requires sacrificing our ego, our sense of control, and our illusion of being ultimately superior. The essence of a mitzvah, however, is negating our ego and submitting to the will of Hashem. Hashem gives us instruction in the form of mitzvos; we obey them because He told us to, and by doing so, we submit our ego to Him. We may not understand or agree with everything, but in performing mitzvos, we acknowledge Hashem as the ultimate source of truth and His instructions as the guide to ideal living in this world. We affirm that the source of truth does not lie within our limited selves, but within the infinite source of reality, Hashem.
Limited vs. Infinite
The second explanation for why the performance of a mitzvah is superior to an act of one’s own volition requires a deeper understanding of mitzvos. The simple understanding is that a mitzvah is a command from Hashem, requiring us to obey His will. The Maharal, however, suggests a fundamentally deeper understanding of mitzvos. He explains that the word and concept of mitzvah is rooted in the word “tzavta” – the Aramaic word for connection. A mitzvah isn’t simply obeying a command, as a soldier obeys the will of his commander. Rather, it is a way for us to connect, spiritually and existentially, to Hashem, our source of existence.
When we perform an action, we act as an extension and manifestation of the One Who willed and commanded it. To illustrate, when you decide to lift your arm, the act originates within your will and your lifted arm is an expression of that original will. When Hashem commands something and we fulfill that command, we bond to and become part of something infinitely greater than ourselves, Hashem. Hashem wanted this to happen and you are now accepting His will, attaching yourself to it, and making His will your own (Avos 2:4). By performing this act, you become a true embodiment and reflection of Hashem in this world. This is why it’s infinitely greater to be commanded than to act spontaneously. When you do something – even something good – without being commanded, all you are reflecting is yourself. It is your personal form of avodah, self-contained and limited, disconnected from Hashem. Instead of manifesting something transcendent, all that you manifest is yourself.
The ultimate depth of this is that as a tzelem Elokim, your own root will is Hashem’s will. You don’t “sacrifice” your will to adopt His will; rather, you become deeply self-aware to the extent that you realize that His will is your root will. This comes with the realization that you are neither the center of the world, nor the source of your own existence. Hashem is.
Explaining Nadav and Avihu’s Mistake
We can now understand the Ramban’s explanation behind the severity of Nadav and Avihu’s sin. Nadav and Avihu were not commanded to bring the k’tores offering; they brought it of their own limited desire and volition. In doing so, they reflected their own ego, and nothing more. True, they had pure intentions, but this was not the will of Hashem.
Deserving of Death?
Nevertheless, we are still left with one big problem. Granted, this may not have been the ideal form of avodas Hashem, since Nadav and Avihu acted without being commanded. However, was this action really deserving of the death penalty? We do not generally consider someone who acts without being commanded to be a sinner. On the contrary, he may even be a righteous person. He is simply not as lofty as someone who does this act through the direct command of a mitzvah, which is infinitely greater. Based on this, why were Nadav and Avihu deserving of death? The answer to this lies in the time and place of this incident.
The Root Is Always the Most Potent
Every process is made up of multiple stages. The first stage is the spark of creation, which is followed by a slow process of expressing that original root seed, finally culminating in the finished product. Take, for example, the growth of a tree. First there is the seed, which goes through a slow growth process as that seed is expressed, and eventually there is a full tree. Human beings go through this same process, as well. Every person begins as a zygote, a single cell, which grows and develops into the end result – a fully formed human being.
In every process of creation, the root, the seed, is the most crucial and potent phase. This formative stage is also the most delicate. Any error or imperfection that occurs at this stage will have cataclysmic results. For example, if a child cuts his finger at the age of seven, the injury will be minor at worst. However, if there is even a minor glitch in the DNA of a zygote, even a single chromosome missing, everything can go wrong; the results can be catastrophic!
This is the key behind the P’nei Yehoshua’s famous question regarding the miracle of Chanukah. He asks, why was it necessary for us to find an untainted jar of pure oil (shemen zayis zach) when we defeated the Syrian-Greeks and reclaimed the Beis HaMikdash? There is a principle that “tum’ah hutrah b’tzibur”: When everyone in the community of klal Yisrael is impure, you don’t need pure oil; impure oil suffices. Rav Yosef Engel (Gilyonei HaShas, Shabbos 21b) explains that while this is normally true, this specific case was an exception. This was not just a standard case of lighting the Menorah; this was the Chanukas HaMikdash, the Inauguration of the Temple. Since this was the inception, the root period of creation, everything had to be perfect. The oil therefore needed to be completely pure.
So, too, Nadav and Avihu sinned during the original Chanukas HaMishkan. The Nefesh HaChayim explains that this building of the Mishkan was like the rebuilding of the world. This creative process was in its root stage; anything even slightly amiss would be devastating. We simply could not afford to begin with anything out of place; otherwise the Mishkan would be built on these faulty principles. This is why Nadav and Avihu received such a severe punishment: They sinned at the root stage of the process. Their act – and its repercussions – was multiplied exponentially due to the timing.
What, Why, and How
Every act we perform is multilayered, and our decisions must reflect this sophistication, as well. First, we must determine what exactly we are doing. Is this action a reflection of a deep truth, and therefore objectively valuable, or is it meaningless? Next, we must question why we are doing this act. Am I doing it with the intention of connecting with the infinite will of Hashem, or am I simply expressing my own limited ego? As we then proceed to undertake the action, we must ask ourselves how we are doing it. Are we maintaining our commitment to idealistic connection as we perform the act, or are we just going through the motions? May we be inspired to search for the truth, to live by that truth, and to connect with Hashem in the deepest and truest of ways.
Shmuel Reichman is an inspirational speaker, writer, and coach who has lectured internationally at shuls, conferences, and Jewish communities on topics of Jewish Thought and Jewish Medical Ethics. He is the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy (ShmuelReichman.com), the transformative online course that is revolutionizing how we engage in self-development. You can find more inspirational lectures, videos, and articles from Shmuel on his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.