In our previous article, we began exploring the deeper nature of Nadav and Avihu’s sin. While we began by sharing some of the more practical approaches, Rashi quotes a midrash that fundamentally shifts our perception of Nadav and Avihu. The midrash 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 suggests 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?

The first explanation we gave 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 that Hashem is the ultimate source of truth and His instructions are 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.

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.” (See also Shelah HaKadosh, Yoma; Derech ChayimTochachas Musar (16); B’rachos 6b; S’fas Emes, Parshas Eikev 632.) 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, i.e., 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, limited, and 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. Let us briefly explore this topic.

Hashem As the Makom of the World

Many people believe that before Hashem created the world, there was simply nothing. On the contrary, until Hashem created the world, there was only Hashem Himself. As the Arizal, Ramchal, and others explain, Hashem created the world by making a makom, a space, within Himself. Just as everything in the physical world requires space to exist, existence itself requires a space to exist. If you have a cup completely filled to the brim with metal, you will not be able to pour any water into it. Only if there is a space in the cup, if there is room for the water, can you pour water into the cup. Before Hashem created the world, there was no space for us to exist, as all of existence was occupied by Hashem – ein od milvado. To create the physical world, Hashem made space within Himself for us to exist. This is why Hashem is referred to as the “Makom of the world,” the place of the world (Midrash T’hilim 90; Rashi, Avos, perek 2). We exist within Hashem, so to speak; He is our makom.

Just imagine if you created a person within your mind, gave him a life story, a family, a role to play, etc. You have now made space – within yourself – for this person to exist. However, he only continues to exist so long as you continue to think about him and give him existence. The same is true for each of us; we only continue to exist as long as Hashem continues to will us into existence.

This is the true nature of a mitzvah. A mitzvah connects us to Hashem and His will, attaching us to the ultimate Root of reality, the Source of all existence, the Makom of the world. Just as the boy in the introductory story suddenly realized that the world was infinitely more expansive than his tiny house, a mitzvah allows us to expand infinitely beyond the limited borders of our ego, connecting to the transcendent. In doing so, we become partners with Hashem Himself, and our sense of self expands infinitely.

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 Ketores 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. (This is also one of the explanations of Adam HaRishon’s sin, the Cheit HaEigel, Shaul HaMelech’s sin, David HaMelech’s sin, and many other fundamental errors throughout Tanach. While these applications are beyond the scope of this article, this shows how far-reaching this principle is.)

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, did this action really deserve 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, and 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 it was 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 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 HaMizbei’ach, 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 (Gilyonei HaShas, Shabbos 21b).

So too, Nadav and Avihu sinned during the original Chanukas HaMishkan. The Nefesh HaChaim 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, were 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.

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: