Many commentators grapple with the harshness of the punishment meted out to Nadav and Avihu. Some explain the severity of God’s punishment as situational. These commentators point out that it is the context that created the need for such a severe divine response. For example, Netziv on Vayikra 10:2 suggests that it was because it was inside the Kodesh HaKodeshim that divine retribution was so swift. Otherwise, a divine death penalty is not immediate (and allows for repentance). Similarly, Meshech Chochmah (10:3) suggests that it comes as a sequel to the events with the golden calf, which might have led the Jews to think that God easily retracts punishments. After all, Moshe had brought God back into the camp (as demonstrated by the inauguration of the Mishkan). Continues Meshech Chochmah, had the Jews not sinned with the golden calf, God would not have punished Aharon’s sons so severely.
The words of Moshe (10:3) indicate another approach. Immediately after the event Moshe reveals to Aharon that this was what God said would happen – that with the inauguration of the Mishkan, there was need for Him to be sanctified by the death of some of those closest to Him. That sanctification was to be a display of how one needs to be very careful in one’s behavior in the holy place just created.
Indeed, the Mishkan would primarily be a place of religious enthusiasm and joy. True, there were to be limits as to how close common people could come to its inner areas, but it was manned by people who were ostensibly not so different from the rest of the nation. Even with all of the Mishkan’s specialness, it could too easily devolve into the spirit that pervades almost all of our shuls. Since we know that God is palpably present, we behave differently than on the street. But we are also quite comfortable. Yet comfort is not a disposition that befits sanctity.
And so there was a need to set the record straight from the beginning. God was ready to make the point with the first slip-up, in order to create the proper balance of awe required for the new center of holiness that the Mishkan was meant to be. Apparently, this was something which could only be effected by the death of two highly religious individuals such as Nadav and Avihu. For had they been less pious, the nation would have attributed their death to their own personal shortcomings rather than to the auspicious requirements of the Mishkan. Hence they really died not because they slipped up, although that was a necessary condition. Rather, they died precisely because they were so worthy of emulation and respect. And by doing so, they ultimately fulfilled their role and, with it, God’s will.
Nadav and Avihu were able to accomplish more with their deaths than with the continuation of their lives. Happily, this is a rare occurrence, but it is one which those close to God must accept as a possibility. A priestly life, which is on some level the life of every Jew, is not about living per se. It is about helping others to live a better and richer lives. Most of the time, that can best be accomplished by living holy lives. But sometimes, it can only be accomplished by dying holy deaths.