While it is important to know the plot of the Torah’s narratives, it is sometimes even more important to know its sub-plots. The story of Nadav and Avihu provides us with a good example of that.
A close reading of the story makes us note the unusual involvement of many family members here. Moshe first instructs Aharon’s cousins to pull out the bodies; then he instructs his brother, Aharon, and Aharon’s remaining two sons, Elazar and Itamar, about the laws of mourning. He tells them they are not allowed to fully mourn, but puts them at ease by saying that their brothers, the entire house of Israel, will do so in their stead. Immediately afterward, God speaks to Aharon about the issue of wine we mentioned earlier, explicitly directing it to him and his sons. And as the verses continue, it is none else but the relationship between Aharon and his sons that is placed under the spotlight.
The above observation makes it easier to notice the peculiar introduction of the main characters as “the sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu.” While not technically wrong, this phrasing is somewhat unusual – the default is to present the names first and then their relationship to any others, i.e., “Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon.” That this is not coincidental is reinforced twice in the verses that follow. First we read, “Mishael and Eltzafan, the sons of Uziel,” and later, “Elazar and Itamar, the sons of Aharon.” This is a strong hint that the relationship between Nadav and Avihu and their father deviates from the standard father-son relationship.
A key word puts everything else into a fascinating perspective – the description of Nadav and Avihu’s fire as “zara” (foreign). In Modern Hebrew, zara means someone of a different nation, but the Torah does not use the word in this way even once. Rather, zara almost always describes someone who is not of the family. It is generally used to describe a non-priest, i.e., not of Aharon’s family; and the word retains this connotation in the context of levirate marriage, specifically to describe an individual who is not the brother of a man who died childless.
The Torah makes a point of describing the sin Nadav and Avihu committed with a word usually meaning “not of the family” – all the more so in this context of otherwise well-ordered family ties. It is no coincidence, then, that if we were to distill our emerging reading of the sin of Nadav and Avihu to its core, we would say that Aharon’s two sons became foreign to their family; that is, they made themselves not their father’s sons.
In this context, we can better appreciate a strange narrative that unfolds after the death of Nadav and Avihu: Moshe objects to Aharon and his sons’ refraining from eating from the sin offering due to their state of mourning. However, he curiously directs his ire at only the two remaining sons. Equally curious is the fact that it is not the sons who respond to Moshe but their father.
Based on what we have learned in this section, this makes perfect sense. Moshe is trying to see whether these sons are also estranged enough from Aharon to assert the authority he has given them when he addresses them instead of their father. On this score, they pass the test beautifully, remaining silent and allowing their father to speak for them. With this, the traditional lines of authority and hierarchy disrupted by the challenge of Nadav and Avihu are immediately restored.
Some of the rabbis keenly pick up on the theme of Nadav and Avihu’s detachment from the previous generation as well. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 52a), for example, has the two walking behind their father and uncle saying, “When will these two die so that we can lead the generation?” This is also what likely underlies another midrash, wherein they gave a ruling in front of Moshe – who was not only the leader of the people but also their elder and uncle.
The upshot is that the events that took place after the sin of Nadav and Avihu elucidate the real issue behind whatever sin or sins they actually committed: They challenged the traditional hierarchy of children following their parents and juniors following their seniors. It is presumably this issue more than any individual sin that the Torah wants to bring to our attention.
Hence the story of Nadav and Avihu serves as a paradigm for the need to factor in the experience of elders and to accept their leadership, even when there are younger people with greater raw intelligence and skill. In its most vivid terms, the story of Aharon’s sons shows us that one who ignores his elders is not equipped to live long enough to become a member of what he sees to be a superfluous generation. Even if he lives on, he will likely do so in intergenerational isolation. As he ignored his elders, so will his children ignore him – to the detriment of both generations, and of mankind.
(Excerpted from Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Leviticus, the fifth and final volume of the series, just released by Urim Publications http://www.urimpublications.com)