This week’s Torah portion contains the dramatic story of Nadav and Avihu, two of Aaron’s sons, who bring a strange offering to God. This is so unacceptable that a fire consumes them on the spot and they die. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Parshas Shemini, Remez 524) suggests seven reasons why Aaron’s sons deserved death:
- Nadav and Avihu were impatient for Moshe and Aaron to die so that they could take over leadership of the Jewish people.
- They made Jewish legal decisions in front of Moshe, their rabbi, a sign of disrespect.
- They entered the holy area while intoxicated.
- They entered the holy area without first washing their hands and feet.
- They entered the holy area without wearing the priestly garments.
- They did not get married.
- They did not try to have children.
Although these reasons seem entirely unrelated, we could suggest that all seven of them stem from one fundamental fault. Nadav and Avihu were such great people that they were considered to be more beloved by God than Moshe and Aharon (Rashi, Parshas Shemini, 10:3, citing Vayikra Rabba, 12:2, Rav Shmuel bar Nachman). Nadav and Avihu were aware of their high spiritual level. As a result of this, they felt they had already reached the pinnacle of their achievement, and therefore had no need to strive for further growth and self-improvement. This misjudgment was the root of all seven possible reasons for their death:
- Nadav and Avihu felt they had reached completion and perfection, so it seemed fitting for them to take over leadership of the Jewish people.
- They felt they had achieved the epitome of Torah knowledge, so they made Jewish legal decisions in front of their rabbi.
- Since they assumed they had reached their maximum potential, they felt they could relax, so they entered the holy area while intoxicated.
- Since they felt they had reached the height of purity, they no longer needed water to become purified, so they entered the holy area without first washing their hands and feet.
- Since they felt they had achieved perfection, they no longer needed the atonement provided by the priestly garments (Eirachin, chap. 3, “Yesh B’eirachin”, pg 16a, Rav Anani bar Sasson), so they entered the holy area without wearing them.
- They assumed that, since they had perfected themselves, God could speak with them at any time – as He did with Moshe, who separated from his wife, Tzipporah, due to this consideration (See Parshas B’ha’alosecha, 12:1-4, Rashi there, based on Midrash Tanchuma) – so they did not get married.
- Since they did not get married, they were halachically forbidden from having children outside of marriage.
The Measure of a Man
Now that we see the common source of the seven reasons, let us examine another detail of the story. The Torah tells us (Parshas Shemini, 10:2) that a fire consumed Nadav and Avihu after they brought their strange offering. According to the Yalkut Shimoni (524), this fire came from the Holy of Holies. Why is it relevant to know the source of the fire?
The Holy of Holies contained only one vessel: the Holy Ark. The Holy Ark contained the Torah on the inside. Unlike the other Temple vessels, the dimensions of the Ark were all fractions – 2.5 by 1.5 by 1.5 cubits (Parshas Terumah, 25:10). According to the Kli Yakar (Parshas Terumah, 25:10), the fractional measurements of the Ark teach us that we should always feel lacking in regards to the Torah wisdom we have acquired. In other words, when it comes to Torah knowledge, we should always feel like we only obtained a “fraction” of what there is to know.
Each of the Ark’s dimensions teaches us a different aspect of this lesson. The fractional measurement of the Ark’s height shows us that we lack depth of knowledge. The fractional measurement of the Ark’s length shows us that we lack breadth of knowledge. Finally, the fractional measurement of the Ark’s width shows us that we lack the ability to grasp concepts.
In Hebrew, the same word midos means both “measurements” and “character traits.” This is why the fire that consumed Nadav and Avihu came from the Holy of Holies: the resting place of the Ark. The Ark, with its fractional measurements (midos) teaches us that we, too, are fractional – lacking in Torah knowledge and imperfect in our refinement of character (midos). Nadav and Avihu thought that they had reached completion. The origin of the fire that consumed them showed that they still had work to do.
If this lesson was relevant to such great people as Nadav and Avihu, it is all the more relevant to us. Although we should take pleasure and pride in our positive achievements, we should never become complacent. We should not feel so satisfied with our accomplishments that we lose our yearning to stretch and grow further.
May we continually desire to push beyond our current level, and in the merit of this attitude, may we soon deserve to see the return of our centerpiece, the Holy Ark, with the building of the Third Temple.
VIDEO for PARSHAS SHEMINI:
“I Won’t Drink to That”
RABBI WAGENSBERG’S BOOK ON PARSHA AND HOLIDAYS:
“A SHOT OF TORAH”