Flagrant Consecration and Sacred Conflagration: The Unholy Sin of Nadav and Avihu

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier

The Story

Our Parsha powerfully demonstrates the dangers of inappropriate approach to the Divine with the cautionary tale of Nadav and Avihu (Vay. 10:1-3):

וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ קְטֹרֶת וַיַּקְרִבוּ לִפְנֵי יְקֹוָק אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם

וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְקֹוָק וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם וַיָּמֻתוּ לִפְנֵי יְקֹוָק

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל אַהֲרֹן הוּא אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְקֹוָק לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ וְעַל פְּנֵי כָל הָעָם אֶכָּבֵד וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן

Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord meant when He said: ‘Through those near to Me I show myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.’” And Aaron was silent.

Moshe explains the fire that killed Nadav and Avihu by paraphrasing God’s previous statement as בקרובי אקדש, literally “With those near to me I make myself holy,” an explanation sufficient to silence Aharon.

Rashi’s Explanation

What does this phrase mean? Rashi’s response (ad. loc.) is well-known:

הוא אשר דבר וגו’ – היכן דבר ונועדתי שמה לבני ישראל ונקדש בכבודי (שמות כט מג). אל תקרי בכבודי אלא במכובדי. אמר לו משה לאהרן אהרן אחי יודע הייתי שיתקדש הבית במיודעיו של מקום והייתי סבור או בי או בך, עכשיו רואה אני שהם גדולים ממני וממך

“This is what [God] said”: Where did God speak this? “And there I will meet with the Israelites, and it shall be sanctified by My Honor[able Presence]” (Shem. 29:43). Do not read “by my Honor” but “by my honored ones.” Moshe said to Aharon: ‘My brother, you knew that this house would be sanctified by those whom God knew well, and you thought it will be me or you. Now I see that they [Nadav and Avihu] are greater than me and you.’

On this reading, God receives honor, and thus the Tabernacle is consecrated, through what sounds like a human sacrifice – having a person close, or closest to God be incinerated. Moshe manages to console Aharon by emphasizing that Nadav and Avihu were killed not for what they did wrong per se but because of their closeness to God, maybe even being closer than Moshe himself!?

What is Rashi’s basis for this claim? Did God really commit to taking an unwilling human sacrifice in the consecration of the Tabernacle? How are we to understand this? It may be worth consulting Rashi’s source for this point to clarify matters. Ramban (ad. loc.) notes that Rashi’s words stem from the Midrash, apparently Vayikra Rabbah Shemini 12:2.

God’s Earlier Statement

Significantly, that Midrash (uncited for reasons of space) appears to focus not on Shem. 29:43 but on 29:44, so it is worthwhile to read both in tandem:

וְנֹעַדְתִּי שָׁמָּה לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְנִקְדַּשׁ בִּכְבֹדִי

וְקִדַּשְׁתִּי אֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְאֶת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וְאֶת אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת בָּנָיו אֲקַדֵּשׁ לְכַהֵן לִי

And there I will meet with the Israelites, and it shall be sanctified by My Honor[able Presence]. I will sanctify the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and I will consecrate Aaron and his sons to serve Me as priests.

Note that Rashi’s themes appear over these two verses: the Temple is sanctified through God’s Glory (ונקדש בכבודי), which, in turn, is accomplished through the sanctification of Aharon and his sons. What is interesting is that this Pasuk explicitly names Aharon and his sons, making it clearer why Moshe would have expected them to be singled out. They are to be “sanctified,” understood to mean that they not (just) be set aside for divine service, but be consumed totally for the glory of the Divine.

But it remains problematic that God would be interested in having human sacrifice, given the objections to that prospect throughout the Torah. Moreover, as Chazal make very clear, and with ample biblical basis, Nadav and Avihu were not destined to be burnt before God, and were only consumed as punishment for a sin! How can the approach of Rashi/Midrash coexist with the understanding that Nadav and Avihu were punished?

Given a certain understanding of their sin, it may be possible to fit together these disparate strands.

Nadav and Avihu’s Sin

The chapter immediately prior to Nadav and Avihu’s tragedy emphasizes the leitmotif of coming close (ק.ר.ב). Multiple times Aharon’s approach (Vayikrav), a sort of overture, precedes his offering (Vayakrev). In fact, the priests come close as well, to observe and assist Aharon’s actions.

Nadav and Avihu’s actions represent the polar opposite of this activity. Right after a fire emanating from God burned the offerings, scaring the nation and spurring them to fall on their faces (9:24), Nadav and Avihu impetuously grab the various implements and offer incense, not approaching God but rather imposing their offering upon the Lord. Midrashim elaborate upon their sin in various ways, including saying that they entered the Tent of Meeting while drunk, certainly an impetuous and ill-prepared advance.

Returning to Our Pasuk

The words בקרובי אקדש, “With those near to me I make myself holy,” present an ambiguity, relating to the preposition bet. It could be an instrumental bet – “through the actions of those who are close to me I will be sanctified” – or a material bet – “with the bodies of those who are close to me I will be sanctified.” In other words, God is sanctified through those close to him –with them serving as either the Gavra or as the Cheftza.

This ambiguity is parallel to its “sister verse” that the Midrash referred to, which includes an ambiguity of its own (this one semantic rather than syntactic), regarding the words וְאֶת אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת בָּנָיו אֲקַדֵּשׁ לְכַהֵן לִי, “and I will consecrate Aaron and his sons to serve Me (as priests).” This could mean that Aharon and his sons are sanctified as priests, such that they might first come close and then bring close offerings. But the word אקדש, “I will sanctify,” has a second meaning as well; it might signify the option that God will make Aharon and his sons into sanctified items, i.e. קדשים, sacrifices.

For each of these verses, there were two scenarios in which the Temple might be consecrated. In one, Aharon and his sons are inaugurated into the priesthood, and function in that role– with all the appropriate safeguards, approaching first and only then offering. In such a structure, which Aharon followed, God and the Mishkan would be sanctified by the actions of those coming close. However, if they failed to serve appropriately as priests, and they rashly brought close (makriv) without first coming close (karev) and apprehensively asking for permission, they faced the prospect of becoming the sacrifice themselves.

It is therefore relevant that, following this unfortunate story, there is such an emphasis on proper priestly preparation prior to bringing Korbanos, with the prohibition against drinking wine and entering the Temple (10:8-11) immediately following the story. And this is precisely what Hakdasha, consecration (lit., making sacred) is all about – taking the necessary preparatory steps before coming close to God – in fact, not drinking is said to distinguish the sacred from profane (10:10).

We see this association between Hakravah (bringing close) and Hakdashah (consecration) not only in our story with its juxtaposition of the words בקרובי אקדש, “with those near to me I make myself holy,” but also throughout Chazal. It is not for naught that sacrifices, called קרבנות (lit., that which is brought close) in the Torah, are usually called קדשים (lit., consecrated things) in Chazal. To give another example, the Sifra glosses תמים יקריבנו “he should bring close his offering without blemish,” in Vayikra 1:3 as תמים יקדישנו, “he should sanctify his offering without blemish,” demonstrating the importance of preparation and setting aside the animal as holy even before bringing it to the Mikdash. Finally, as discussed at length by Rav Soloveitchik, the Kohen Gadol’s seven day seclusion prior to Yom Kippur is not only for purposes of purity (Tahara) but also of sanctity (Kedusha), that he be properly prepared for his role of stepping into the קודש הקדשים, the Holy of Holies.

The asymptotic striving towards the Holy One requires preparation. Increasing one’s proximity to sanctity only escalates the urgency of that need. Nadav and Avihu’s unholy failure teaches that we must constantly affirm our role as agents of God’s sanctity in this world, while avoiding the temptation of presumptuous overstepping.

Shlomo Zuckier (SBM 2012) is Associate Rabbi and JLIC Co-Director at the Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale, a PhD student in Judaic Studies at Yale, a Tikvah, Wexner, and Kupietzky Kodshim Fellow, and Editorial Assistant for Tradition magazine.

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