The commentators discuss the meaning and implications of the “strange fire” brought as an offering by Nadav and Avihu. In his discussion of this perplexing passage, Rabbi Avigdor Miller, zt”l, discusses their early demise and observes that their death served a greater purpose (through the sadness that ensued) and that despite receiving a divine death penalty, the Torah regards them as great people.
And the sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, took each one his censer and they put into them fire, and they put upon it incense and they offered before Hashem strange fire which he had not commanded them” (10:1).
The Midrash Tanchuma here (Shemini) offers a long preface which quotes numerous examples where sadness occurs in the midst of happiness. The Midrash continues: “Never did we see a man and his wife who saw such happiness as Aharon and his wife Elisheva, the daughter of Aminadav; her husband served as kohen gadol and as a prophet; Moshe her husband’s brother was king and prophet; her sons were officers of kehunah, and her brother Nachshon was the chief of all the n’siim of Israel; but her joy did not persist, and her two sons entered to bring an offering and a fire came forth from Hashem and consumed them. Thus it is said [Tehillim 75:5]: ‘I said to the gay: be not merry.’ ”
From this it is obvious that the plan of Hashem had from the beginning intended to interject sadness into the midst of great joy, for the purpose of teaching that the sole true and unadulterated joy is in the Afterlife. Whatever sin the two sons committed, the severity of their fate was planned also to supply a lesson to exercise caution in performance of Hashem’s service.
But a sadness had been decreed beforehand. Thus the most righteous, Moshe, was denied entry into the blessed Land; and though his 120 years were completed and he could not live longer, this was utilized as an additional opportunity to rebuke: “Because you were disloyal to Me” (Devarim 32:51).
Hashem had commanded, “And the sons of Aharon the kohen shall put fire on the mizbe’ach (1:7) and the two sons of Aharon hastened to offer the ktores which should precede the burning of the olah (Yoma 33a). The fire that came forth from Hashem actually devoured their ktores (together with them) and then consumed the olah and the fats (as in 9:24). Though they were punished for taking action before consulting their master Moshe (Eruvin 63a), yet upon them it is said, “There is a righteous man that perished in his righteousness” (Koheles 7:1 5). “This refers to Nadav and Avihu that entered to offer for the honor of Hashem and they were burned” (Yalkut Shimoni, ibid.).
The matter is far from simple, and we should remember that these two were privileged to ascend with Moshe and Aharon and the Elders of Israel to see the vision of the G-d of Israel (Shemos 24:1). “Said Rabbi Chiya bar Abba: On the first of Nissan the two sons of Aharon died; why is their death mentioned on Yom Kippur? To teach that just as Yom Kippur atones, so also does the death of the righteous atone” (Yalkut Shimoni, Vayikra 10:1).
Actually, in this instance the ktores was not required before the olah (as the order is stated in Yoma 33a), because the order of the daily offerings was not followed now at the especial service of the dedications of the Mishkan, for this was not the olas tamid, but an especial offering for this occasion.
The name Nadav implies generosity of soul, or “volunteering.” It was probably his nature to volunteer to serve Hashem of his own accord, and therefore he offered that “which Hashem had not commanded” as an additional and voluntary service.
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