In commenting on the story of Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s two sons who died while presenting a fire offering to G-d, Rashi seems to contradict himself. 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.
The resolution of this seeming contradiction may lay in the difference between the wisdom that comes from knowledge and the understanding 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).
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. For him who hasn’t seen the likes of Nadav and Avihu the risks remain theoretical. But for the old man who has seen the devastating catastrophes that can result from lack of caution, the dangers are quite 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 G-d 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 preference 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 merely old-fashioned and reactionary. 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.
As a teacher I discern that the student that really succeeds is the one who is there to listen more than to speak out; the one who wants his or her ideas critiqued and not just appreciated. It is that student who will grow and fully reach their potential. As for the others, I can only hope that they will still somehow reach maturity and its wisdom.