In commenting on the story of Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s two sons who died while presenting a fire offering to God, Rashi does something very unusual. The famous exegete extraordinaire seems to contradict himself in very close proximity. First he tells us that Aharon’s sons were either guilty of being drunk while in the Temple and/or not deferring to Moshe on a legal question posed in his presence. Right after that, he tells us that these very same sons of Aharon were actually greater than both Moshe and Aharon. This last statement, originally found in Midrash Vayikra Rabbah (12:2), is even more curious when we see that Rashi actually only gives us two of the possible sins of Nadav and Avihu. In fact, the rabbis come up with a long list of possible transgressions of these apparently renegade individuals. That being the case, it seems hard to understand how the rabbis could come right back with the conclusion that Nadav and Avihu were greater than Moshe and Aharon.
The resolution of this seeming contradiction may lay in the difference between the wisdom that comes from knowledge and the sagacity that comes from experience. While the sons of Aharon may have been great in terms of the former, they were apparently lacking the latter.
Thus, the rabbis teach that one should respect even a foolish old man, justifying this position by saying that his experience alone is worthy of respect (Kiddushin 33a). For a young man always seems in a hurry, impatient with the preliminary tests designed to ascertain that taking the rocket further into space will not result in its destruction. “Let’s go for it now, since according to my knowledge, there should be no problem,” says the young man. The old man responds and says, “But I remember Nadav and Avihu (or some other similar personalities) saying the same thing and they were the finest minds the Jewish people ever saw – you know they were even greater than Moshe – and it didn’t quite go as they planned.”
One of the main things gained from experience is a better appreciation of the counter-productivity of taking things to the limit without first testing and retesting the waters. That is not to say that the risks always lead to a disaster – most of the time they don’t. And that is precisely why the young man is willing to go full steam ahead. For him who hasn’t seen the likes of Nadav and Avihu the risks are only theoretical. But for the old man who has seen the devastating catastrophes that can result from lack of caution, the dangers are soberingly real.
Since Nadav and Avihu were greater than Moshe, we can understand them not deferring to him when a question was asked of them – they knew more than Moshe and, presumably, he would have nothing to add. Or, so they thought. Moreover, the idea of serving God inebriated is not necessarily wrong – this is certainly what many great rabbis have done on Purim. Aharon’s sons could have thought that they were adding a new dimension to the Divine service that Moshe did not understand. Likewise, if we go through the rest of the list of sins, we would see that the central problem was their predilection to ignore Moshe, precisely because they were greater than he.
This can also help us understand another seemingly strange statement of the sages, that it is better to destroy when that is what is suggested by the elders than to build when it is suggested by the youth, for the former is true building and the latter actually destruction (Nedarim 40a). It is not necessarily that the older people know more. Indeed what is frustrating to young people is that their elders often know less. When young people grow up and discover that they possess more knowledge in certain areas, it is natural for them to be impatient with their parents’ wisdom, which often comes to them as mere old-fashionedness and reaction. Though they are sometimes right, other times they only realize too late that the caution of the elders is a healthy check to the impetuousness of youth.
In most vivid terms, the story of Aharon’s sons shows us that one that ignores his elders should not live long enough to become a member of what he sees to be a superfluous generation. And even if he lives on, he will likely do so in intergenerational isolation – as he ignored his elders, his children will ignore him as well. To the detriment of both generations and to the detriment of mankind.