The sin of Nadav and Avihu in this week’s Parsha is described as “their having brought “a strange fire that was not commanded.” (10:1) Rashi, in the name of R’ Eliezar explains that Nadav and Avihu’s fundamental failing was that their self-initiated offering was not part of the prescribed inauguration ceremony and had been introduced without first consulting their uncle, Moshe. In this regard “they had issued a halachik ruling in the presence of Moshe their teacher.” This failing on the part of the two sons of Aharon resulted in their deaths.
What was so wrong with the offerings of Nadav and Avihu that they should pay with their lives? Granted, it is important for each of us to know our designated place within the hierarchy of Torah leadership and scholarship; however, the fire offering of Nadav and Avihu was not intended or presented as rebellious or demeaning. It was offered as an expression of religious fervor and devotion. If anything, their enthusiasm and innovation should have been lauded, even as they were being chastised for stepping beyond the bounds of established Torah protocol.
To understand the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the fundamental importance of our “Rabbis” and the Halachik process must be reviewed. The 8th and 9th principles of the 13 Principles of Faith focus on the importance of how Torah has been transmitted throughout the generations. The Written Law and the Oral Law were both given by G-d to Moshe on Mt. Sinai. It was G-d’s intention that the Written Law serve as the primary source for knowing His will, and that the Oral Law would explain and elaborate on how to integrate G-d’s commandments into our daily living. This knowledge was to be transmitted orally, from teacher to student, from generation to generation. In each and every generation a handful of students would be chosen to be the repositories of the Oral Law, and be able to then transmit the Torah, accurately and in its entirety, to the next generation. These chosen few had to be, of course, the best, the brightest, the most righteous, and the most faithful.
When dealing with an orally transmitted tradition, accuracy will be in direct proportion to the individual’s perception of his own place within the transmission of that tradition. The student must know that the accuracy of the transmission is far more important than his individual insight, interpretation, or innovation. The teacher must be able to totally trust his student’s devotion to maintaining the system, rather than fearing that the student might seek to carve out for himself a place in history through an innovative interpretation and compromise of the Oral Law – no matter how righteous and well intended the students intentions might be. Individual egos have no place within a system of an oral tradition, except in regard to the accuracy of that transmission.
The Talmud in Sucah 28a relates that two of the greatest Tannaim, R’ Eliezar, and R’ Yochanan Ben Zakai, were known “to have never said anything except that which they had learned directly from their teachers.” The Talmud then goes on to explain the greatness of R’ Yochanan Ben Zakai, who was the least impressive of all of Hillel The Elder’s 80 students. Let it suffice to say that the description of R’ Yochanan’s scholarship is awesome. It is clear that R’ Yochanan was one of the “Chosen Few” who was to be charged with the accurate transmission of the Oral Law to the next generation. The reason why they Talmud elaborates on the greatness of R’ Yochanan is so that we understand the importance of “and he never said anything that he had not learned directly from his teacher.” The brighter and more knowledgeable a person is, the greater will be his desire to innovate and be creative in his thinking and his learning. We can just imagine the degree of discipline that a scholar of R’ Yochanan’s stature had to exert in order to remain true to his personal mission of transmitting the Torah to the next generation, without innovation or novelty. Just think of how difficult it is for each of us to sit still and simply listen to our teachers. Our questions and ideas always appear to be of such paramount importance, that we can hardly allow the teacher, or fellow student, to explain the logic of his position. How much more so must that urge have been considering the monumental intellect and encyclopedic knowledge of someone like R’ Yochanan Ben Zakai. Yet, the Talmud states that “he never said anything that he had not learned directly from his teacher.”
The Rambam in his introduction to the Mishnah Torah lists R’ Yochanan Ben Zakai as one of the “Chosen Few” who were responsible for accurately transmitting the entire Torah to the next generation. (To give you a perspective on the importance of R’ Yochanan, note that the famous R’ Akiva, reputed to have been the greatest of all the Tannaim, was the second generation after R’ Yochanan Ben Zakai. This means that R’ Akiva’s scholarship was only as accurate as R’ Yochanan’s teachings had been.) This is why the Talmud elaborates on the greatness of R’ Yochanan’s scholarship, to emphasize the importance of his extraordinary feat of discipline and control in “never having said anything that he had not learned directly from his teacher.”
Once the Oral Law had passed through its many generations of transmission, the weight of history added strength to the obligation of accurately transmitting the Law without innovation or personal bias. However, during its infancy, the Oral Law was most vulnerable to personal bias, interpretation and potential change. We are told that Nadav and Avihu were “equal in potential to Moshe and Aharon.” This means that they were to be among the Chosen Few, if not the primary two, who were to be charged with the accurate transmission of Torah, in its entirety, to the next generation. However, “accuracy is in direct proportion to the individual’s perception of his own place within the transmission of that tradition.” In order to guarantee the accuracy of the transmission, Nadav and Avihu had to accept that the Torah was not the personal creation of Moshe. It was not the collected wisdom of Moshe’s intellect and life experiences. Torah was the word of G-d, spoken to Moshe, the servant of G-d, and transmitted to the Bnai Yisroel without innovation, change, or personal bias. That is why Moshe is described as a “scribe” who simply recorded the words of his master. If Nadav and Avihu were to assume their rightful roles as the next leaders of the Jewish people, they had to discipline themselves, just as Moshe had done, to curb personal innovation and bias, and become repositories of G-d’s Torah as transmitted through their teacher, Moshe. Otherwise, their potential would prove the greatest of disasters and tragedies for all future generations.
The only Torah that is eternal is that which is truly G-d’s. Anything else is destined to be assimilated into the pages of history. That is why Nadav and Avihu had to die when they innovated and brought “a strange fire that was not commanded.”
The annals of history prove that the only viable Judaism is that which faithfully transmits the teachings of Moshe Rabbeinu. All other attempts at change and innovation have failed and been proven to be nothing more than personal bias, or ego, regardless of righteous intent. The last 150 years of “enlightenment and change” have only proven that “a strange fire that was not commanded,” can only bring darkness, rather than enlightenment, to the life of our people. The greatest tragedy of all is the vast numbers of Nadav’s and Avihu’s, potential Moshes and Aharons, who must have been lost to us within the darkness of enlightenment.
Copyright © 1999 by Rabbi Aron Tendler and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley Village, CA.