Knowing the Big Picture
Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aharon, took their incense pans and put fire and
incense in them, and offered an unauthorized fire before God, which He did
not command them to do. A fire went out from before God and burned them up,
and they died before God. (Vayikra 10:1-2)
I am working on a new book these days called Drowning in Pshat. In short, it
is about how we lose the forest for the trees, even people who are steeped
in Torah, when it comes to reading the signs of history. We learn Parshah,
commentaries on the Parshah, Mishnah, Gemora, Rishonim, Acharonim, Poskim,
etc., perform great acts of chesed, including outreach to bring unaffiliated
Jews back into the fold for their own good, as well as ours, all against a
backdrop of turbulent history. We are losing Torah leaders, which represents
a breach in the protective wall around the Jewish people, and are suffering
tragedies, like what occurred in France a few weeks back, which represents a
lack of Divine protection.
We’ve been losing friends for decades now, if they were ever friends in the
first place, but we are now watching what was Israel’s closest ally, the
United States, distance itself from supporting Israel as it once did,
regardless of the rhetoric being pushed from the White House. The hard, cold
facts speak for themselves, one of which is that President Obama (or the
people behind him), is a master of deception.
The question is, why don’t we see what is going on, and if we see what is
going on, why don’t we respond to it in kind? Why do we always have to be
looking down the smoking barrel of a gun before we realize that the bad
situation that was is getting worse? Why are we always so unprepared for
what hits us when we know so much Torah and halachah, and so many of the
commentaries that explain them to us? No wonder so many of our prayers do
not come back with what we asked for; by the time we ask for something, it
is always so late in the process, often requiring a bigger miracle than we
In fact, this is an important way of understanding what God told Moshe
Rabbeinu by the sea. While Moshe Rabbeinu was doing what every good Jew does
in a time of crisis—praying to God for help—God not only stopped him, but
even questioned, “Why are you praying to Me?” (Shemos 14:15). Who else was
Moshe Rabbeinu supposed to pray to?
There are various different answers given, but one that is overlooked is
crucial for understanding the problem we are discussing. Simply put, God was
asking Moshe Rabbeinu the following question:
Why are you praying to Me now? If you had prayed to Me on the way out of
Egypt as you were fleeing, before the Egyptians had begun to pursue you, I
could have stopped them in any number of ways that would not have seemed so
miraculous. I could have inflicted them with a plague, or simply distracted
them with other problems that would have convinced them that you were not
worth pursuing. However, you turn to Me now while the Egyptians are ready to
attack you, and the only path to safety is across a sea that will surely
drown you. Do you understand the nature of the miracle you are asking for,
and how much merit it would take to bring it about? You didn’t have
sufficient merit to even leave Egypt; how could you have it now to split the
sea? You ask for too much by way of prayer.
You have to admit, God had a point. Yeah, why didn’t we pray for safety when
it was still easy to do so, and the cost wasn’t so high? Why did we wait for
so long then, and why are we waiting so long now? If we’re holding off until
the missiles are ready to launch or are on their way to Eretz Yisroel, God
forbid, won’t God reiterate His question to us?
We wait because we are drowning in Pshat. Everyone can see what is happening
to the Jewish people today, and where it might be heading, but few know what
to make of it in a historical sense. They lack context, because Pshat,
Remez, and Drush—Torah, Mishnah, and the Talmud, together with all of their
commentaries do not provide it, not without the help of Sod, or Kabbalah.
Kabbalah provides context, historical and philosophical.
For example, as I have discussed on many occasions in the past, that as of
1990, we have been living in a period of history that corresponds to the
hour of Creation during which Adam HaRishon ate from the Aitz HaDa’as Tov
v’Rah. This would make our period of time unique, inasmuch as its spiritual
roots are back in the main sin that caused the exile in which we still find
ourselves. At the end of history, it would make this time ripe for tikun,
and redemption, as in the Final Redemption.
This idea is strengthened by what the Zohar revealed, that at least as of
1990, we have been living in the period of time that the Torah calls Kibbutz
Golios, the Ingathering of the Exiles. This is amazing when you consider
that the Intifadah served to make Jews focus on the Land of Israel and their
relationship to it, that the USSR collapsed in 1991, allowing Russian Jews
to finally emigrate to Eretz Yisroel, and that organizations such as Nefesh
b’Nefesh sprang up to facilitate aliyah like never before. None of this can
be considered coincidence.
Nor can it be considered coincidence that so many Jews reject the idea of
aliyah, claiming that they can better learn Torah and perform mitzvos in the
Diaspora, when the Arizal said that the souls of the final generation will
be those of those who left Egypt with Moshe Rabbeinu, and eventually
rejected the land. Without knowledge of this sod, who can possibly make the
connection between what they feel about the land, and what their ancestors
did when they rejected it for similar reasons?
There are so many other pieces of the puzzle that are not readily available
on a Pshat level. But they are available if people make the effort to dig
deeper into what they learn, and what is going on in history. Because what
we don’t do on our own, history eventually forces us to do when the events
become confusing enough that they send us in all directions searching for
answers to allow us to connect the dots. We need to connect dots.
This week’s parshah is a good example of this. Probably nowhere in history
had mankind reached such a pinnacle, and fallen so quickly from it. At a
time that the Jewish people should only have known celebration and spiritual
ecstasy, they were forced to emotionally plummet when two major players were
instantly killed while trying to enhance, not denigrate, their service of
God. Who were Nadav and Avihu, and what went wrong?
There is not much said about them on the levels of Pshat, Remez, and Drush,
other than the fact that Moshe points out their greatness by virtue of what
did happen to them, which adds strangeness to strange. However, the Arizal
fills in many of the blanks about these two brothers, the eldest sons of
Aharon HaKohen, in Sha’ar HaGilgulim.
Nadav and Avihu came from the good side of Kayin, [the firstborn of Adam
HaRishon], and this is the sod of “the firstborn Nadav and Avihu” (Bamidbar
3:2) . . . [However,] only Nadav had his Ruach from the level of Kayin,
which is the sod of the verse, “With Your generous spirit—ruach
nedivah—sustain me” (Tehillim 51:14). His Nefesh came from his elder,
Aminadav, the father of Elisheva his mother, and thus he took the last three
letters Nadav—Nun-Dalet-Bais. However, with respect to Avihu, both his
Nefesh and Ruach were from Kayin, and that is why he is called “Avihu”—he is
my father—to indicate that all of his levels were from Kayin, who received
the Nefesh from Adam himself, the father of the entire world. This is the
meaning of Avihu: He was from Adam, the father of the entire world. This is
the sod of, “We are unclean from the soul of man—nefesh adam” (Bamidbar
9:7), a reference to Nadav and Avihu, the Nefesh of Adam HaRishon himself.
Since Nadav did not have the Nefesh of Adam, it does not say “Nefashos
Adam” in the plural, since the main Nefesh of Adam was only in Avihu. Avihu
also received [part of his soul] from Nachson, the brother of his mother,
because he was also from the root of Kayin called Nefesh. Furthermore, since
the main attachment of the zuhama of the snake in Adam HaRishon was on the
level of the Nefesh of Asiyah, he was called Nachson—Nun-Ches-Shin-Vav-Nun—
after the snake—Nun-Ches-Shin . . . Returning to the discussion of Nadav and
Avihu, since they were on the level of the Nefesh called Asiyah, the zuhama
of the snake attached itself to them, and they sinned in the incident of the
unauthorized Incense-Offering (Vayikra 10:1), and were punished with death.
(Sha’ar HaGilgulim, Ch. 33)
On a Pshat-level, we barely get a chance to know who Nadav and Avihu are.
Through Rashi in Parashas Mishpatim, we find out that they were worthy of
death because they looked at the Shechinah when they were not allowed to.
Through the Talmud, we know they compounded their punishment when they
speculated that Moshe and Aharon would die before them, elevating them to
leadership roles in the Jewish people. In this week’s parshah, we learn that
they performed a service of God while in a drunken state, a big mistake that
actually cost them their lives.
Yet, Moshe calls them greater than Aharon and himself. God had foretold that
someone(s) would die sanctifying the Name of God, and until this week’s
parshah, he had assumed that it would be Aharon and himself. Overlooking the
mistakes that Nadav and Avihu had made, Moshe Rabbeinu instead sees
greatness in those who died by the hand of God on such a sacred day. All of
this may have been clear to him, but it leaves us baffled and drowning in
Until Sod comes along and fills in some of the gaps:
Had the Jewish people not sinned with the calf, then the zuhama would have
been completely removed from them. Had this been the case, then even though
Nadav and Avihu sinned with the incense they would have simply died a normal
death. However, since Israel did commit the sin with the calf, they caused
the zuhama to adhere once again to the Nefesh of Adam the result being that
Nadav and Avihu had to die through burning. This is the meaning of, “And all
your brothers the entire House of Israel shall cry over the burning”
(Vayikra 10:6): The sin of the calf caused the burning of the Nefesh of Adam
HaRishon, the “father of the entire world.” This is why Nadav and Avihu were
considered “equal” to the entire Jewish people, like Moshe and Aharon,
because they had possessed the Nefesh of Adam HaRishon itself. (Sha’ar
HaGilgulim, Ch. 33)
Indeed, according to the Arizal, their death in this week’s parshah was not
the end of their journey, but the beginning of it, at least for their souls:
Regarding the ibur into Pinchas, it is written, “Remember,
please—Nun-Aleph—which innocent—Nun-Kuf-Yud—person ever perished” (Iyov
4:7), as the Zohar says (Pinchas 217a). For, the first letters of Nadav and
Avihu are Nun and Aleph, and they are from the root of Kayin, whose letters
spell Nun-Kuf-Yud. In other words, they never perished but went into
Pinchas, who was also from Kayin. However, as we explained earlier, when
Pinchas sinned with the incident of the daughter of Yiftach, the ibur of
Nadav and Avihu was removed from him and it went to Shmuel HaNavi. (Sha’ar
HaGilgulim, Ch. 33)
It is no coincidence that everyone to whom the souls of Nadav and Avihu went
became a prophet. According to the Zohar, their souls came from the sefiros
of Netzach and Hod, the source of prophecy. Therefore, to receive their
souls meant that a person automatically became a prophet, first Pinchas,
then later Shmuel HaNavi, and others along the way.
Moshe Rabbeinu must have become aware of this, perhaps at the time that they
died. Perhaps he conveyed this information, where their souls came from, and
to where they might be going, to their Aharon HaKohen, which may have made
their deaths easier to handle, allowing him to remains silent, and to be
praised for it. Their journey of tikun spanned many generations, going back
all the way to Kayin himself, and continuing on well past the time of Nadav
About two weeks ago, I had occasion to spend Shabbos in the Emergency Room
at Haddasah Ein Kerem Hospital. I had come in Erev Shabbos, but by the time
they discharged me, Shabbos had already come in, so I forced to remain there
over Shabbos itself, which suited me fine since I was still in a lot of pain.
Like about 20 other people, I lay on a hospital bed around the main
reception area, while others lay in the curtained compartments. It was quite
full, and others came in during the night and the next day.
My own discomfort distracted me, especially since it was almost impossible
for me at the time to find a comfortable position. But, I wasn’t oblivious
to what I saw and heard around me, especially since some patients were
louder than my own pain once the pain killers kicked in.
As I lay there wondering how people put up with intense, prolonged pain, it
didn’t occur to me at the time that all of us there were undergoing some
more severe moments of tikun. All of our souls had been here before,
probably many times before, and were now undergoing our next stages of
tikun. And, as the expression goes, you can pay us now, or pay us later; the
more Gihenom a person goes through in this world, the less he has to undergo
in the next one.
Since then, as I deal with my own discomfort, I keep wondering to myself,
“Why, why, why?” It just slows me down, keeping me from learning, stopping
me from writing Torah, and preventing from making it to minyan. I think of
what I must have done wrong recently, and use that to justify my present
However, as we learn from the story of Nadav and Avihu, the events of our
current lives may trigger periods of tikun, but our past lives are the
reason for our tikunim. This is why it is so hard to judge other people, and
why speaking loshon hara is such a severe sin. Without knowledge of a
person’s entire journey, it is impossible to know where he is on it, and why
what he is going through is good for him. The best we can do is say over and
over again: “All that God does is for the good,” because knowing the big
picture, only He can truly make sure that this is so for every individual.
Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Torah.org.