Parshat Shemini From West Coast NCSY 

Posted on July 16, 2008

Aharon and his sons begin the priestly service

Aharon performs the sacrificial rituals and blesses the people

Fire descends and consumes the offerings upon the altar

Two of Aharon?s sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring a strange fire

Fire descends and Nadav and Avihu die

Aharon is commanded to refrain from intoxication

Moshe continues his discourse on the offerings of the day

Moshe and Aharon debate a particular law of the offerings

Torah?s discourse on Kosher and prohibited animals

We are to be sanctified through the laws of Kashrut

“And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon, each took his fire pan, and placed in it fire, and placed upon it incense, and they offered before G-d a strange fire, of which they were not commanded.” (Vayikra 10:1)

On the day of the priestly inauguration, the entire people gather at the Mishkan. Aharon, the high priest, prepares the holy offerings and places them upon the altar. A heavenly fire descends from the heavens and consumes the offerings, sanctifying G-d?s name.

Following this miraculous occurrence, two of Aharon?s sons each take fire pans and place incense upon them. They place what is described as a ?strange fire? on the pans, and approach the altar. The Torah stresses that they were not instructed to do this. As they approach, a fire descends from heaven and they both die.

This is a very perplexing episode. What was Nadav and Avihu?s sin? What was so significant about their sin that they deserved death?

In order to understand their punishment, we must first understand their sin. The verse states they brought ?a strange fire of which they were not commanded.? The Ralbag explains that the fire was taken from a place that was unfit for the specific priestly service. Therefore it was labeled a ?strange fire?. He goes on to discuss the specifics of their violations. Summarily, the Ralbag explains that Nadav and Avihu deviated from the prescribed service. The offerings are intended to be brought on behalf of the people. They instead brought personal offerings. Hence they were defying the outlined intention of the offerings and therefore deprived B?nei Yisrael of the benefit intended with these offerings. Thus such a severe punishment befell them.

The Baal HaTurim gives a slightly different explanation. He focuses on the words “of which they were not commanded.? He explains that their sin was not that they disobeyed a specific commandment, rather, that their action was not based on a commandment. They were acting upon a desire for individual expression, which was inappropriate in a situation where they were to represent the entire people. Therefore they deserved punishment.

In the book of Shmuel I (Chapter 15), King Shaul is instructed by Shmuel the prophet to wipe out the nation of Amalek. He is instructed to destroy everything and spare nothing. At the time of the battle however, Shaul spares the best of the sheep and the King of Amalek. In defense, Shaul explains that his intention was to sacrifice those animals that they had spared to G-d. To which Shmuel replied, ?Does G-d desire in elevated-offerings and meal-offerings (rather) than obedience to the voice of G-d? Behold, obedience (is better) than a good meal-offering, compliance (is better) than the fat of rams!? (15:22).

R? Hirsch further articulates this concept. Sacrifices are a means, designed and given to us by G-d, to achieve a certain ends. This ends, in the words of R? Hirsch, is ?the fulfillment of G-d?s will in God-fearing obedience? (Commentary on Haftorat Zachor). Here, Shaul concentrated on the means while ignoring and consequently undermining the given ends. He exercised his own personal judgment and expression, and placed it before G-d?s commandment.  As a result, Shaul lost his Kingship and Kingdom.

Similarly, Nadav and Avihu chose to exercise their personal judgment and expression in choosing to bring an offering ?of which they were not commanded.? With this action, they were undermining the original intention of the offerings. On the day of the priestly inauguration, in front of the entire people, this could not be tolerated. Hence Nadav and Avihu perished before the entire people, thus sending a message that the House of G-d is a place of reverence never to be desecrated.

In the service of G-d, it is not up to us to personally judge how we are to serve our Creator. Rather, we should serve Him in the method that He has prescribed for us to follow; that is the Torah.