It should have been a day of joy. The Israelites had completed the Mishkan, the sanctuary. For seven days Moses had made preparations for its consecration. Now on the eighth day – the first of Nissan, one year to the day since the Israelites had received their first command two weeks prior to the Exodus – the service of the sanctuary was about to begin. The sages (Megillah 10b) say that it was the most joyous day in heaven since creation.
But tragedy struck. The two elder sons of Aaron “offered a strange fire that had not been commanded” (Leviticus 10:1) and the fire from heaven that should have consumed the sacrifices consumed them as well. They died. Aaron’s joy turned to mourning: “vayidom Aharon – and Aaron was silent” (Leviticus 10:3). The man who had been Moses’s spokesman could no longer speak. Words turned to ash in his mouth.
There is much in this episode that is hard to understand, much that has to do with the concept of holiness and the powerful energies it released that, like nuclear power today, could be deadly dangerous if not properly used. But there is also a more human story about two approaches to leadership that still resonates with us today.
First there is the story about Aaron. We read about how Moses told him to begin his role as high priest. “Moses [then] said to Aaron, ‘Approach the altar, and prepare your sin offering and burnt offering, thus atoning for you and the people. Then prepare the people’s offering to atone for them, as God has commanded’ ” (Leviticus 9:7).
The sages (Sifra, quoted by Rashi to Leviticus 9:7) sensed a nuance in the words “approach the altar,” as if Aaron was standing at a distance from it, reluctant to come near. They said: “Initially Aaron was ashamed to come close. Moses said to him, ‘Do not be ashamed. This is what you have been chosen to do.’ ”
Why was Aaron ashamed? Tradition gave two explanations, both brought by Nahmanides in his commentary to the Torah. The first is that Aaron was simply overwhelmed by trepidation at coming so close to the Divine presence. The rabbis likened it to the bride of a king, nervous at entering the bridal chamber for the first time.
The second is that Aaron, seeing the “horns” of the altar, was reminded of the Golden Calf, his great sin. How could he, who had played a key role in that terrible event, now take on the role of atoning for the people’s sins? That surely demanded an innocence he no longer had. Moses had to remind him that it was precisely to atone for sins that the altar had been made, and the fact that he had been chosen by God to be high priest was an unequivocal sign that he had been forgiven.
There is perhaps a third explanation, albeit less spiritual. Until now Aaron had been in all respects second to Moses. Yes, he had been at his side throughout, helping him speak and lead. But there is a vast psychological difference between being second in command and being a leader in your own right. We probably all know of examples of people who quite readily serve in an assisting capacity but who are terrified at the prospect of leading on their own.
Whichever explanation is true – and perhaps they all are – Aaron was reticent at taking on his new role, and Moses had to give him confidence. “This is what you have been chosen for.”
The other story is the tragic one, of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, who “offered a strange fire that had not been commanded.” The sages offered several readings of this episode, all based on close reading of the several places in the Torah where their death is referred to. Some said they had been drinking alcohol. Others said that they were arrogant, holding themselves up above the community. This was the reason they had never married.