By Rabbi Aron Tendler
The spectacle of fire descending from heaven and lighting a Mizbeach (alter)
occurred only twice in history. The first time was in this week's Parsha on
the eighth day of the inauguration of Aharon and his sons into the service of
the Mishkan. The second time was on Mt. Carmel when Eliyahu (Elijah the
Prophet) challenged the prophets of the idol Baal. In both instances, the
appearance of fire descending from heaven was an undeniable sign of G-d's
In the first instance, His favor was directed toward the nation. In the
second instance His favor was a personal confirmation of Eliyahu's status as
"a true prophet of G-d." The fire in the desert, the national fire, was
intended to be everlasting. So long as the nation was deserving, the fire
would remain burning on the Mizbeach. On the other hand, the second fire,
Eliyahu's personal fire, was only for that moment. Once Eliyahu's primacy as
a true prophet had been established and the prophets of the Baal had been
exposed as false prophets of a false god, the fire died out.
In this week's Parsha, the spectacle of G-d's fire descending from heaven was
marred by the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. The Torah states that they died
because "they had offered a strange fire that had not been commanded." Rav
Hirsch clearly shows from the presenting verses that personal agenda and
intent motivated Nadav and Avihu's actions. They had taken coals from their
own hearths, in their own fire pans, and brought the special spice offering,
the Ketores, that was the exclusive offering of the High Priest.
In doing so, Nadav and Avihu transgressed a number of laws.
1. They did not first confer with Moshe. 2. They brought an offering that was
supposed to be the exclusive right of the Kohain Gadol. 3. According to one
opinion in the Talmud, they had drunk wine before attempting to bring their
"unauthorized" offering. Drinking wine before performing the Temple service
is forbidden. 4. They used privately owned items in their offering - which
was forbidden. (All offerings presented in the Bais Hamikdash by the Kohanim
had to be prepared with utensils belonging to the nation. In fact, the
clothing that the Kohanim wore could not belong to the individual Kohain.
They were the property of the nation.)
Regardless of Nadav and Avihu's transgressions, their intentions and motives
were noble and devotional. They desired to be close to G-d. They were filled
with passion and fervor. They felt holy and pure, and by extension, they felt
that their every thought and action was holy and pure. However, the fact that
their desire and intention to offer a Ketores had not been "commanded"
rendered the offering unfit.
Nadav and Avihu had been appointed to serve the nation as commanded by G-d
and taught to them by Moshe. They were not chosen to serve the nation as they
saw fit or were inspired. In doing as they saw fit, Nadav and Avihu served
themselves and not the interests of the nation or Hashem.
The Medresh describes the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. As the fire descended
from heaven the nation fell down in fear and awe. At the very same time,
Nadav and Avihu entered the Holy of Holies (only permitted to the Kohain
Gadol) to offer their Ketores. The fire descended from heaven to the space
between the Badim - carrying poles of the Aron Hakodesh. It then split into
four separate flames two of which entered the nostrils of Nadav and the other
two the nostrils of Avihu. The fire killed them instantly without marring
their outer appearances. The flame then lifted Nadav and Avihu and threw them
outside the confines of the Mishkan. The flame then proceeded to the
Mizbeach, setting fire to the stacked wood and consuming the Oleh offerings.
It was as if the fire had to first purify the nation from any personal
motives in serving G-d before it could light the Mizbeach in everlasting
service to G-d. The very same fire that had revealed G-d's favor toward the
nation punished Nadav and Avihu's self-motivated devotion. The message was
clear. The individual may die but the nation will survive. Personal motive,
feelings, and interpretation are meaningful to the individual but will not,
cannot, guarantee the nation's eternity. They serve themselves, not G-d.
At times of personal tragedy it is common for the individual to question
G-d's judiciousness. We feel that pain and loss justify the challenges and
excuse the occasional lack of civility. Certainly, we cannot judge those who
challenge G-d or society when it is due to personal loss or pain. However,
even pain requires a perspective. The story of Nadav and Avihu provides the
In the aftermath of their deaths, the verse states, "Vayidome Aharon - and
Aharon was silent." What does Vayidome mean? It means acceptance. Aharon's
silence did not indicate a lack of emotion or feeling. It revealed the
profundity of his personal devotion and sense of responsibility. As the
Kohain Gadol he did not have the luxury of venting his pain. At the time of
his inauguration, at the time of the lighting of the Mizbeach, he would not
voice feelings that challenged G-d and served his own emotional needs.
Instead he was silent.
Aharon was not the only one who was silent. Elazar and Isamar, the brothers
of Nadav and Avihu, were also silent. They too had suffered a terrible
personal tragedy and they too remained silent. Moshe was their uncle and
teacher. He too had suffered a terrible personal loss. He too contained his
feelings and remained silent.
In 11:2 Rashi writes, "At that moment, G-d's directive to teach the Bnai
Yisroel the laws of the Kosher and the non-Kosher animals, fish, and fowl was
directed to all of them (Moshe, Aharon, Elazar, and Isamar) equally. Why?
Because they were all equal in their silence and they had all accepted G-d's
decree with love." G-d rewarded the family of Aharon with the opportunity of
teaching the Bnai Yisroel the laws of Kashrus. Why was this their just reward
for their silence in the face of personal tragedy?
Kashrus is one of classic "Chukim - statutes." Although the Torah tells us
that the laws of Kashrus are intended to "Make us holy - to set us apart from
the other nations - to be Kadosh just like Hashem is Kadosh;" nevertheless,
it does not reveal why each individual item was permitted or forbidden. Why
beef but not ham? Why Gefilta fish but not lobster quiche? Why carp but not
squid (well, that one may not be such a mystery…) Yet, Kashrus, more so than
any other category of Mitzvos, dominates the religious life style of the Jew.
As with all the Mitzvos, personal preference does no enter into the equation.
If you really like green ham Dr. Seuss will have to suffice. If the desire
for a cheeseburger grabs hold of you, my Daddy used to say, "Climb into bed
and wait for the urge to pass."
Kashrus is all the time. At home, the office, on airlines, in the Far East,
the frozen expanse of Antarctica, and Pico Blvd. Kashrus is the standard of
the observant Jew.
Just as the Kohain must serve the nation and not himself, so too, must the
Jew be identified by the standards of our nation and not his personal
Because Aharon, Elazar, and Isamar set aside their personal pain and grief
and accepted G-d's devastating decree in silence and love, they merited
joining Moshe in teaching the laws of Kashrus.
The original fire that appeared in the second year of the desert burned
almost 1000 years, until the destruction of the 1st Bais Hamikdash. What a
humbling experience it must have been for the Kohain to approach the Mizbeach
on a daily basis knowing that he would feel the heat of G-d's original flame.
It reminded him that his service for the people and to G-d was a personal
destiny forged in the flames of his forefather's silence.
Copyright © 2001 by Rabbi Aron Tendler
and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation,
Valley Village, CA.