Parshas Shemini begins with what should have been a day of celebration for Bnei Yisrael, but instead ended in tragedy. After seven days of training the Kohanim in the duties of the Mishkan, Moshe was ready to hand over the reins to Aharon and his sons. On the eighth day, they brought a series of korbanos in order to officially sanctify the Mishkan. They blessed the nation and celebrated when their offerings were accepted by Hashem. However, in the middle of the celebration, tragedy struck.
Aharon’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, decided to bring an additional korban. The pasuk says, “וַיַּקְרִבוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם. וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם וַיָּמֻתוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה” “And they brought before Hashem an alien fire that He had not commanded them. A fire came forth from before Hashem and consumed them, and they died before Hashem” (Vayikra 10:1-2). Moshe consoled Aharon by proving that their deaths signified that they were greater than even he and Aharon (See Rashi Pasuk 3); still, their deaths marred the celebratory day, as the entire nation mourned the loss of these great men.
Chazal give a litany of explanations as to why they deserved to die. One opinion is that they decided a Halacha in front of their rebbi, Moshe, while another says they had drunk wine. Another explains that they had actually sinned by the giving of the Torah by partying instead of preparing to receive the Torah, but in order not to mar that celebration, they were killed now. One says because they never attempted to have children, while another says because they had not properly washed before entering the Mishkan. Another says because they didn’t discuss the matter together before deciding to bring the korban, and the last opinion is because they disrespected Moshe and Aharon by planning out how they would lead the nation after Moshe and Aharon had passed on.
It is one thing to have this many different opinions about one event, but why do we even need so many ideas in the first place? The Torah clearly tells us why they were killed, “They brought before Hashem an alien fire that He had not commanded them!” Furthermore, we know that Nadav and Avihu were two of the greatest men of the generation, rivaling even Moshe and Aharon; how is it possible that they could be guilty of any of the crimes Chazal accuse them of?
Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky explains that the actual sin of Nadav and Avihu was like the pasuk says, they brought an unauthorized korban. In order to understand how these two great men could come to do such an aveirah, Chazal presented all these suggestions to us. The process went like this: First, how could they make such a mistake if Moshe and Aharon were around? It must have been that they decided the halachah without consulting them. How could they have the audacity to make such a decision? It must be that they felt they had a better process of teaching Torah, hence their discussions of how they would lead the nation after Moshe’s death.
And while only being completely drunk was not allowed in the Mishkan (and the Beis Hamikdash), they should have been more careful and not had any wine at all since they could have been called upon at any time to bring a korban. This step showed a degree of Ga’avah, arrogance, towards Hashem as well, making it quite possible that they may have acted similarly by Matan Torah. Ga’avah was also the reason why they never married. Originally, they wanted to follow the path of Moshe, who separated from his wife in order to maintain a constant state of kedushah in order to speak with Hashem at any moment. However, there was another reason as well, buried deep down in their consciousness. As the children of the Kohen Gadol and the nephews of Moshe they felt that no one was worthy of marrying into their family.
At this point we could question that perhaps they weren’t really good men at all! But that would not be true. Not only was each of these sins done unintentionally, each one of these sins was not intentionally done as a sin! They were all done with nothing but the best intentions. They felt that Torah was not being taught to the nation in the best way possible and wanted to fix that. They had drunk wine in order to celebrate the giving of the Torah and the consecration of the Mishkan; wine is one of the items the Torah tells us to use to celebrate! They hadn’t married in order that they could be constantly available to Hashem. They truly were great men.
At the same time, everything they did turned out to be a disaster. Because even though they couldn’t see it, it all came from a ga’avah source. Everything they did was determined by their ga’avah. This is a danger that can happen to anyone, even to the greatest men of the generation. Everyone has a trait in the root of their character which has both an element of good and evil. We must be careful and train ourselves that we act on the good part and not the bad. The potential for an altruistic act being based on a bad trait is real, and the line is sometimes very fine. We must work on ourselves to insure that it does not happen to us.
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