Those who know the least obey the best. -George Farquhar
After the Revelation of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, the consecration of the Tabernacle was meant to be the next high point of the sojourn of the Nation of Israel during their desert journey. This portable Temple with the concentrated presence of God amongst them, would accompany the young nation, keeping God ever close.
But amidst the induction of Aaron and his sons as the Kohens, the priestly caste; amidst the festivities, the sacrifices, the rituals and the celebrations – something goes horribly wrong.
Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s two older sons, decide, on their own initiative, to introduce a “strange” fire to the proceedings. This uncommanded change to the day’s ritual was met with immediate and devastating results. A fire from the heavens immediately descends and kills Nadav and Avihu instantly.
Commentators offer a range of explanations as to what exactly was the sin of Nadav and Avihu and why they deserved what on the surface appears to be a wildly disproportional punishment for what we might think was a minor infraction at worst.
Rabbi Hirsch on Leviticus 10:3 interprets the event as clearly an error on the part of Nadav and Avihu and learns something as to God’s view of moral responsibility, obedience and punishment based on intellectual capacity:

“God says: ‘The more a person stands out from among his people as a teacher and leader in relation to Me, the less will I show indulgence for his errors. Even by having him die I demonstrate that My will is absolute and that not even – indeed, least of all – those nearest to Me, the highest before Me, may permit themselves the slightest deviation from it. This will make the entire nation realize the full, solemn import of the obedience they owe Me.’ Seen in this light, these words of God should be sufficient consolation for Aaron, so that the text can indeed state: ‘And Aharon was silent.” Had his sons not been close to God, allowance might have been made for their aberration, and the Heavenly decree that overtook them might not have come to them as a warning of such solemn import for the entire nation. In sharpest divergence from the modern view, which regards intellectual attainments as a license for moral laxity and tends to make allowances for violators of God’s moral law if they happen to be men of intellect, Judaism postulates that the higher the intellect, the greater must be the moral demands placed upon it.”
Indeed, to paraphrase, borrowing a line from modern culture, we might say that, “With great intellectual power, comes great moral responsibility.”
May we harness our intellects and intelligence morally and not see it as an exemption from our many responsibilities to family, friends, community and society.
Shabbat Shalom
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Ben-Tzion Spitz is the Chief Rabbi of Uruguay. He is the author of three books of Biblical Fiction and over 600 articles and stories dealing with biblical and rabbinic themes. Ben-Tzion is a graduate of Yeshiva University and received his Master’s in Mechanical Engineering from Columbia University.
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