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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Shmini

Sometimes, More Is Less

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One of the most tragic - & mysterious - of all events in the entire Torah occurs in our Sedra: Nadav & Avihu, Ahron’s oldest sons, offer "strange fire" as part of the incense offering, & they die.

Commentators offer a variety of different reasons for their death:

- They decided a law in front of their rabbis, Moshe & Ahron;
- They were intoxicated;
- They added a new offering to the Avoda othat had not been commanded to them;
- They added an extra ingredient to the Korban.

The fact that there are so many diverse opinions seems to indicate that no one really is sure exactly what went on here.

What IS clear is that Nadav & Avihu were extremely righteous people; this we know because Moshe explicitly tells us so. In fact, he assures Ahron that his sons were even greater than they – Moshe & Ahron - are! And this, by the way, is why Ahron is stunned into silence ("Vayidom Ahron"): He finds himself at an "emotional impasse:" He grieves for the loss of his children, yet at the same time he rejoices that his sons lived, & died, as "wholly holy" individuals.

But, of course, this only complicates matters. If they were such tzadikim, then why did they die?

I suggest that the key to this puzzle can be found in two little words: "Lifnei Hashem." The pasuk tells us that they died when they offered strange fire "before G-d." Now, that phrase can mean, literally, "in front of Hashem" (i.e. they brought their offering in the Mishkan, where G-d’s presence most intensely dwelt). But "before Hashem" can also mean "preceding Hashem," as in, "I go before you in line, I take precedence."

In other words, while Nadav & Avihu certainly worshipped Hashem, they overstepped their bounds in their desire to come close to Him. They were so determined to connect to Hashem, they superseded even HIS directives!

It's comparable to a soldier who finds a comrade pinned down by enemy forces. His commanding officer orders him to stay put, because the situation is too dangerous. But the soldier is so determined to rescue his fellow soldier that he rushes forward, kills the enemy, and saves his friend's life. The commander praises the soldier for extreme bravery, and then puts him into jail for disobeying orders.

And so, because they disobeyed orders from the Supreme Commander, because they came TOO close to the fire - or, to put it another way, because they were TOO passionate - Nadav & Avihu suffered terminal "burn-out," & were no more.

There are times when we so want to impress G-d, when we are so filled with religious ecstasy, that we lose perspective. And then we lose control; we do things that we think will bring us closer to Hashem when, in reality, it only drives us further away from Him & injures us spiritually. We forget that G-d comes first & that He has the final say, even if we don’t approve.

The road to hell-fire, alas, is all too often paved with good intentions.
Rabbi Stewart Weiss
Was ordained at the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, Illinois, and led congregations in Chicago and Dallas prior to making Aliyah in 1992. He directs the Jewish Outreach Center in Ra'anana, helping to facilitate the spiritual absorption of new olim.
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