By Nechama Stampler | Series: | Level:

Crime and the Complexity of Punishment1

Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s sons, each took his fire-pan, put fire in them, and placed incense upon it. They offered a foreign fire that Hashem had not commanded them. A fire went forth from before Hashem and consumed them. They died before Hashem.

Rashi: R. Eliezer 2 says [in contradistinction to an opinion that he cited earlier that Nadav and Avihu sinned by ruling on a halachic matter without consulting Moshe their teacher] that they entered the mikdosh while intoxicated. The next section makes this clear, by instructing the kohanim in the prohibition of performing the avodah while under the influence of intoxicating beverage. The Torah speaks in the manner of one who notes a tragic problem, and immediately acts to prevent its reoccurrence.

Maharal: [Some background first. We are puzzled as to the sin of Nadav and Avihu. There are several ways of looking at their action as insightful and justified. One way of looking at it is that a fire had miraculously descended upon the outer altar. The miracle apparently ended there. Heaven did not follow up with a parallel fire to inaugurate the avodah of ketores. Nadav and Avihu quickly understood that opportunity beckoned with an opportunity to perform a mitzvah unique in history. They seized the moment, adding their own ahavas Hashem to the ahavah He displayed to Klal Yisrael at that moment. Their service does not strike us as foreign at all. 3 The ketores was part of the daily avodah, and perhaps even more important at this moment, after Hashem’s open display of His kavod through the heavenly fire. 4

Alternatively, Nadav and Avihu acted before the fire descended from Heaven. They watched as all the korbanos were prepared and placed upon the outer mizbeach – without anything happening. They believed that the next step was for human beings to begin the fire on the altar. 5 ] Either way, Nadav and Avihu’s sin requires some explanation.

Rashi therefore several ways to help us understand why Nadav and Avihu’s actions were flawed. Having done that, however, he seems to solve one problem by creating another. If the “real” sin of Aharon’s sons was disrespecting the mikdosh by serving while inebriated, why does the Torah make no mention of it, and speak only about the “foreign” flame? It seems to us that Rashi has labored for naught! In fact, Rashi offers a solution that not only addresses the questions, but stands up to a series of other challenges.

Avodas Hashem requires absolute clear-headedness. Nadav and Avihu should not have attempted any avodah while under the influence of alcohol. By desecrating the quality of the avodah, they turned the fire they offered into a “foreign” one. It was not foreign in the sense of imported from another culture, but in the sense of outside the bounds of propriety. Although their behavior in attempting to inaugurate some aspect of the avodah was indistinguishable from what people might have expected to see, their actions were foreign to the proper spirit of the avodah. Ignoring that spirit reduced their actions to a profane exercise, something that Hashem “had not commanded them.” Their death by fire matched their crime of turning the flame of their attempted avodah into a foreign fire.

We could also explain the “foreign fire” in a manner closer to the plain sense of the term. R. Eliezer may concede that there was no place for Nadav and Avihu’s introduction of a fire without specific instruction from G-d. Their fire did not really belong to the avodah; it was fully foreign to the mikdosh. The pesukim, though, still leave us puzzled. Absent some special circumstance or consideration, death decreed by Heaven does not strike people dead in a moment. Generally, it moves towards its target at a slow crawl, providing opportunity for remorse and teshuvah.

Rashi therefore presents two ways to understand why Nadav and Avihu died so atypically – struck down instantly for their malfeasance. One opinion faults Nadav and Avihu for determining a halachic course of action without seeking Moshe’s counsel and instruction. They acted precipitously; they jumped the gun. Appropriately, their death sentence also ignored the usual allowance of time, and was carried out immediately.

Another opinion finds Nadav and Avihu acting under the influence of intoxicating drink. This is particularly offensive to the kedushah of the place, which has no tolerance or room for drunkenness where people strive for attachment to Hashem through sharp focus and dedication. Contrary to the ordinary course of a Divinely decreed death sentence, Nadav and Avihu’s came instantly, as their action was entirely incompatible with the holiness of the place.

At this point, we would seem to stand on a secure footing, if not for what Rashi has told us elsewhere. From their privileged position along the mountain slope, Nadav and Avihu mismanaged their part in the Torah’s revelation at Sinai by “gazing” at G-d. Rashi6 wrote that they deserved to die then, but Hashem was loathe to mar the festive mood of the giving of the Torah with a display of Divine wrath. He determined to wait for a different occasion to use their death as an object lesson about the exactitude of His expectations. Their sentence was deferred till the occasion of our pesukim – the inauguration of the Mishkan. If so, we do not need any explanation at all for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu – they were marked men from the Shavuos before!

This question fails again to account for how Divine sentences are carried out. If a person manages to survive that flickering of Divine wrath at the moment it occurs, he buys himself time. The sentence will be carried out – but only on the occasion of another transgression that should be punishable by death. Thus, Nadav and Avihu not only escaped punishment at Sinai, but they were safe, in a sense, until their next serious error.

You may find this unsatisfactory. If they would not be punished until violation another major transgression, they in effect escaped punishment for their first sin! This, however, is not true. The sins were connected. They would not have acted inappropriately at the inauguration of the Mishkan had they not first sinned at Sinai. As the Zohar7 explains, the same haughtiness that led them to peer more intently than they should have at the display of the Shechinah at Sinai led them to the error of the foreign fire.

We are making progress, but not quite done. Rashi8 tells us that the deaths of Nadav and Avihu served as punishment to their father Aharon for his role in the sin of the eigel. Once again, any explanation in our pesukim other than relating to the eigel should be out of place! This, however, is not so. Ordinarily, Hashem does not punish children for the sins of their fathers. Chazal tell us, however, that if children persist in the sins of their evil father – in other words, if they take up their father’s sin as their legacy – the punishment of the father is visited upon them.

In a different manner, Hashem will sometimes punish a great tzadik through his children. Although this is not His usual practice, an argument can be made in din that all consequences of a cause are no stronger or better than the initial cause9. Children owe their existence to their parents (as well as many defining elements of their existence and personalities). The behavior of parents in the physical world directly – and sometimes fatefully – impacts upon their progeny. The same could happen in the spiritual realm. A spiritual shortcoming of a parent will redound to the child. This could even mean extinguishing the life of a child, who in din is an extension of the parent.

As stated above, Hashem does not often employ this argument. Sometimes, however, in regard to a great tzadik, with whom He is more likely to deal with the midah of din, He will employ this argument, and punish a parent through the death of a child. Even here, though, He will not punish the child unless that child is guilty of some sin himself. Had Nadav and Avihu not sinned in some manner or form at the Mishkan’s inauguration, Aharon’s sin would not have been visited upon them.

One last citation stands in the way of squaring all of Rashi’s references to the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. Rashi10 reconstructs Moshe’s reaction to the tragedy. He tells Aharon that Hashem had hinted that He would be sanctified through the deaths of those close to Him. He had thought that he, Moshe, or Aharon would be the vehicles for this kiddush Hashem, but now understood the greatness of Nadav and Avihu. Once again, we find an argument for Nadav and Avihu dying without cause.

This is not accurate. Hashem did not and would not harm them without cause. His foretelling that Nadav and Avihu would die at the chanukas ha-Mishkan only meant that He knew that they would sin, and their quick punishment would be a cause for kiddush Hashem. And as is always the case, His foreknowledge of the choice that man will make does not interfere with that choice, and therefore man’s responsibility for it.

1. Based on Gur Aryeh, Vayikra 10:2
2. The names attached to the two opinions differ between our text of Rashi, and the way they are cited by Maharal
3. See Tosefta to Toras Kohanim, Abarbanel
4. See Seforno
5. Rashbam
6. Shemos 24:10
7. Zohar Chadash, Noach 28:
8. Devarim 9:20
9. Gur Aryeh, Devarim 9:20 offers two alternative explanations of this phenomenon.
10. Vayikra 10:3