A boy is born locked inside of a small house with no windows and no way out. He is provided with food and clothing, as well as books and some toys for entertainment, but that is all. He never once sees the outside world, never once sees anything beyond his extremely limited surroundings. Raised in such a way, he comes to believe that this house is all that exists. One day, someone comes along and breaks down the door to the house, letting him out into the world for the first time. Naturally, he is in absolute awe of what lies around him. The grandeur, the sheer magnitude, and the marvel of the surrounding world astounds him and leaves him wondering how he ever considered his previous existence to be a full life.
A Fascinating Case Study
There is a lifechanging concept that lies at the center of 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 Ketores (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 quotes Rabbi Eliezer’s position, which understands Nadav and Avihu as having violated the prohibition of being moreh bifnei rabo (teaching halachah in front of their rebbe), Moshe Rabbeinu (VaYikra Rabbah 12:1).
Another opinion, mentioned in the Sifra, is that Nadav and Avihu sinned by entering the Kodesh HaKodashim. As the holiest place in the world, it is completely off limits to all except the Kohen Gadol 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 (VaYikra 16:1). The Sifra suggests that this connection is due to the fact that the avodah of the Ketores, 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. (Interestingly, Rabbi Akiva suggests that the problem was where the fire came from; they sinned by bringing a forbidden fire (eish zarah) onto the Mizbei’ach.)
Rashi also quotes Rabbi Yishmael’s position, namely 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 toward the essence of their wrongdoing, as the prohibition follows an instance in which it was violated.
[Taking a deeper look at the concept of drunkenness, there is an interesting idea embedded in this position of Rashi. The spiritual concept of intoxication is related to the theme of transcendence and the expansion of consciousness. Although done inappropriately, Nadav and Avihu were attempting to transcend their physical state and connect to Hashem on the deepest level. This explains why they specifically chose to do the avodah of the Kodesh HaKodashim, a place that transcends all physical dimensions of time and space. Their “sin,” therefore, was that they were not yet ready to enter such an exalted spiritual realm. This explains their distinctive, strange punishment: The pasuk states that they were engulfed by Divine flames, and Rashi explains (based on the Gemara) that their physical bodies remained intact while their souls alone were engulfed by the fire. Nadav and Avihu transcended to a completely spiritual level, one they were neither yet ready for nor capable of handling, and they were therefore spiritually consumed.]
The Big Question
There is, however, something missing from all of these approaches. Rashi 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 (VaYikra 10:3). 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 Ketores 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” (ibid. v. 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 Ketores, 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 v’Oseh MiMi SheEino M’tzuveh v’Oseh
The Gemara states that it is greater for one to do something that he has been commanded to do by Hashem than to do something of his own volition, without being commanded (Bava Kama 38a, 87a: “Gadol ha’m’tzuveh v’oseh mi’mi she’eino m’tzuveh v’oseh.”). This means, 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, i.e., Hashem.
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. In our next article, we will delve more deeply into this fascinating topic and see how it fundamentally affects the way we understand Nadav and Avihu’s sin.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is the author of the bestselling book, The Journey to Your Ultimate Self, which serves as an inspiring gateway into deeper Jewish thought. He is an international speaker, educator, and the CEO of Self-Mastery Academy. After obtaining his BA from Yeshiva University, he received s’micha from RIETS, a master’s degree in education, a master’s degree in Jewish Thought, and then spent a year studying at Harvard. He is currently pursuing a PhD at UChicago. To invite Rabbi Reichman to speak in your community or to enjoy more of his deep and inspiring content, visit his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.