Parshas Bamidbar begins with an extensive census of the Jewish nation during their second year in the desert. The tribe of Levi was counted separately from the rest of the nation. Before counting the tribe of Levi, the Torah lists the children of Aaron. “These are the names of the sons of Aaron: The firstborn was Nadav; and Avihu, Elazar, and Issamar… And Nadav and Avihu died before Hashem, when they offered a foreign fire before Hashem, and they had no children,” [3:3-5].
Mefarshim (Torah commentators) are bothered by the seemingly parenthetical interjection that Nadav and Avihu had no children. How does this relate to their death?
Chazal, our Sages, find in these words a suggestion of the reason behind their death. “Nadav and Avihu died because they had no children,” [Vayikra Rabbah 20:9]. Yet doesn’t the Torah itself state that they died, “because they offered a foreign fire before Hashem?” And why would their untimely death not have occurred had they had children?
The Chasam Sofer offers two explanations. Firstly, we find in Chazal an additional reason for the cause of their death. The Gemara (Yoma 53a) says that they died, “because they rendered a halachic decision in the presence of Moshe, their teacher [without consulting him first].”
Perhaps, says the Chasam Sofer, these reasons are connected. There is no greater learning experience than trying to make mentschen out of our children. As we observe how our children behave, and see in them different attitudes and attributes, some of which we like, and some of which we don’t, it begins to dawn on us that some of the things we most abhor to see in our children are still found in ourselves. The more we concentrate on improving our children’s middos (personalities and characteristics), the more attune we become to our own behaviour.
Had Nadav and Avihu had children, they would surely have been sensitive to the great respect a teacher and parent expects and demands from his children and students. They would have realized how inappropriate it is to teach in the presence of one’s teacher. Thus, both reasons lead to the same concept: As bachelors, they were not endowed with the required sensitivities, and they came to do other wrongs. Having children is a responsibility; it makes us more responsible for our own actions.
It is told that at an advanced age, the Chafetz Chaim zt”l (who lived into his nineties) decided that he wanted fulfil his lifelong dream live in Eretz Yisrael. Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, one of Lithuania’s most respected rabbis, came running to the Chafetz Chaim in protest. “How can you leave us!” he cried. “We still need you here!”
The Chafetz Chaim responded that at his advanced age, he was no longer capable of teaching, writing, and distributing his numerous pamphlets, booklets and sefarim. As such, he was no longer of any use to the community, and he desired nothing more than to spend his last years in Eretz Israel.
Reb Chaim Ozer had come prepared for this response. He related to the Chafetz Chaim an idea of the great ba’al mussar (teacher of ethics) Rabbi Yisrael Salanter. A parent, when educating his children, constantly mixes criticism with encouragement, feedback and rebuke, hopefully steering his children in the right direction. As we all know, it’s a battle; at times it seems we never stop criticising and correcting.
When, however, the Zeideh (grandfather), comes to visit, and he sits himself down at the head of the table, all the children are miraculously quiet. The Zeideh doesn’t have to yell or scream. The Zeideh doesn’t have to chastise or rebuke. The mere presence of the Zeideh is enough to make the children behave properly.
“Zeideh,” said R’ Chaim Ozer to the Chafetz Chaim, “it doesn’t matter if you can’t teach or write; we still need you here at the head of our generation! The Zeideh can’t leave us to go to Eretz Yisrael!”
Sometimes, says the Chasam Sofer (in his second explanation) a parent’s time on this world has come. Yet he is allowed to remain alive in order to be there for his children. After all, who else is capable of giving chinuch (Torah education) with the love and care of a parent? True, Nadav and Avihu were liable to death for having offered a foreign fire before Hashem. Yet had they had children, they would have been permitted to remain alive in their merit – for it is not the children’s fault that their father sinned, and they don’t deserve to suffer.
Sometimes, when as parents we are most frustrated at having to deal with our children, it would be valuable to take a moment to reflect on Nadav and Avihu, who had no children, and had no merit to continue living. More than any other mitzvah we do, the children we bring into the world – and with Hashem’s help give a Torah education – give us an eternal connection to the Torah and the Jewish nation.