During the first week the Mishkan was in use, Moshe performed all the work that was done. At the end of that week, Aharon and his sons, as the Kohanim, took over those duties for the rest of time. It was a time of tremendous celebration for the entire nation as everyone was excited about the Mishkan’s consecration. But amid all this, tragedy struck as Nadav and Avihu, the two eldest sons of Aharon and two of the greatest people alive in that generation, died while bringing an unauthorized korban. This was an enormous blow not just to Aharon and his family, but to the entire nation as well.
Understandably, Aharon was very upset at the death of his sons. The pesukim tell us how Moshe consoled him. “ויאמר משה אל אהרן הוא אשר דבר יהוה לאמר בקרבי אקדש ועל פני כל העם אכבד וידם אהרן” “And Moshe said to Aharon, ‘This is what Hashem spoke, (when He said), ‘I will be sanctified through those near to me, and before all the people I will be glorified’. And Aharon was silent.” (Vayikra 10:3). Rashi explains that in Sefer Shemos (29:43), Hashem told Moshe that the sanctity of the Mishkan would shown to Bnei Yisrael through the death of a holy person. The idea was that the nation should realize that not everyone was on such a great level that they were worthy of entering and serving in the Mishkan. Through the death of a holy person in the Mishkan, the nation could infer that if such a holy person did not deserve to enter the Mishkan, then neither did they. Now that this event had occurred, it was a clear proof that Aharon’s sons were tzaddikim. With this idea, Aharon was consoled.
This idea of tzaddikim needing to die to prove this point is discussed in the various commentaries. The question arises, if Nadav and Avihu were the ones selected to prove this point, does that mean they were even greater than Moshe and Aharon? How come Moshe and Aharon were not chosen to establish this idea?
The Ohr HaChaim explains that really Moshe and Aharon were on a much higher level than everyone, including Nadav and Avihu. However, the point Hashem was trying to make was to the nation as a whole, that they should realize there were certain boundaries set up between them and the holiness of the Mishkan. If Moshe or Aharon had been the “sacrifice”, Bnei Yisrael would not have connected this idea to themselves, instead they would have assumed that this had no connection to the Mishkan, but rather, on their otherworldly plane beyond our comprehension, Moshe and Aharon had messed up. However, on the level that the nation stood, they had nothing to fear. So Hashem chose Nadav and Avihu, two great people who were nonetheless closer to the level of the nation, to make his point.
Rashi explains exactly the opposite. By choosing Nadav and Avihu, Hashem was showing that they were even greater than Moshe and Aharon! The Kli Yakar explains; in order to really impress upon Bnei Yisrael the severity of overstepping the bounds of His holiness, Hashem had to show how even the greatest people would be held accountable for this. Using an average or even an above-average person would not have had the same affect.
Either way you slice it, the deaths of Nadav and Avihu were a tremendous Kiddush Hashem. Through their deaths, Bnei Yisrael were taught to treat holy places with reverence, thereby saving them from their own potential deaths as well as preventing many occurrences of tremendous desecrations of Hashem’s name. Chazal teach us how only the greatest people have the chance to give up their lives to make a Kiddush Hashem. The fact that Aharon’s sons were given this opportunity speaks to their greatness, regardless of what level they may have been on.
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