ויקחו בני אהרן נדב ואביהוא איש מחתתו ויתנו בהן אש וישימו עליה קטורת ויקריבו לפני ד’ אש זרה אשר לא ציוה אותם: (Lv 10:1)
The Mishkan is consecrated. The Kohanim complete their seven days of investiture. The Korbanot commanded by God are brought. Moshe and Aharon bless the people. Everything is done to ensure ,ושכנתי בתוכם that God will bring His presence into the midst of the Jewish people.
But suddenly, two of Aharon’s sons initiate an unauthorized offering of incense, using a non-consecrated fire. And just as suddenly, a fire descends from God and consumes them.
Why does God mete out such a severe punishment to the newly consecrated Kohanim for what seems on the surface to be a minor infraction of the rules relating to the incense (קטורת) that was brought to the altar (מזבח)?
The word קטורת is from the root ק-ט-ר "to screen out" by way of smoke. The incense when combined with the fire, created the smoke. The word מזבח is from the root ז-ב-ח "to nourish and act for a higher purpose".
The sin of Aharon’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, was an act of arrogance. They thought that their position as sons of the Kohen Gadol gave them special privileges. They did not consult their father. They did not even consult each other, as evidenced by the phrase איש מחתתו (each man’s censer).
What they shared was the urge to act impulsively, even if that act violated the standards set for the Mikdash. Every aspect of their actions was illegal. The rules require that one bring a קטורת using communal censers, fire from the altar and ingredients purchased with communal funds. Nadav and Avihu took their own censers, ignited an אש זרה, a strange and inappropriate fire from their own homes, and added their own incense to the fire.
The word מחתה is from the root ח-ת-ה "to remove from a source." The מחתה was a censer used to transfer items used in the Korbanot. The word זרה is from the root ז-ו-ר "to separate out from others." The fire that they took was "outside" the acceptable source.
Given the seriousness of their sin and the severe punishment that ensued, the question remains: why did they do it? The consecration of the Mishkan understandably elicited euphoria among the people. The two sons of Aharon were similarly affected, and they expressed their euphoria by bringing a קרבן. Having just completed their training and investiture, they were familiar with the procedures. However, their egos propelled them to disregard the rules set down by God. In doing so, they ignored the purpose of bringing Korbanot to God, as well as their mission as Kohanim to serve as caretakers in the House of God.
The word קרבן is from the root ק-ר-ב "to come close." The entire purpose of the Korbanot was to bring people closer to God.
The bringing of the קטורת is an expression of subservience to the will of God. There is no room for individual initiative or personal creativity. To deviate from God’s law is to violate the very purpose of the קטורת. As Kohanim, Nadav and Avihu were sworn to uphold those standards. Their punishment served as a warning to all future generations of the necessity of proper conduct in the Mikdash.Copyright © 2014, Matityahu Clark. All Rights Reserved. This is an excerpt from the forthcoming Hirsch At Your Table, a collection of brief divrei torah based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary.