AND JUSTICE FOR ALL
The tragic episode of Nadav and Avihu (the death of Aaron's two eldest sons through fire which is alluded to in the first verse of this week's Torah portion) is one of the most difficult in the Torah to understand.
The tragic episode of Nadav and Avihu (the death of Aaron's two eldest sons through fire which is alluded to in the first verse of this week's Torah portion) is one of the most difficult in the Torah to understand. How could the potential successors to Moses and Aaron have been deserving of death? Looking to Rashi, an 11th century French commentator, for an answer, we become even more confused. Commenting on the verse, "And they offered up before Hashem a strange fire that had not been commanded to them" (Leviticus 10:1), Rashi quotes the Talmud which gives two opinions as to what the "strange fire" was. While we would have assumed that the bringing of the "strange fire" into the sanctuary was the sin itself, the Talmud explains that, in fact, the "strange fire" was only a result of their sin. The two possible sins mentioned which led to the "strange fire" are that Nadav and Avihu rendered a halachik decision before their rabbi, Moses, or that they had entered the mishkan (Tabernacle) intoxicated. Both of those sins would make one liable for the Heavenly death penalty.
But the question still remains as to how they could have deserved such a punishment, for those same opinions explain that regardless of the nature of their sin, these two young kohanim (priests) erred only because of their misguided religious zeal. Why did Hashem, the embodiment of righteousness, not show mercy in this case?
One possible answer stems from a seemingly contradictory explanation on a second verse. Looking to a passage soon after their death, the Torah writes that Moses spoke to Aaron, and Elazar and Itamar, his "remaining" sons (Leviticus 10:12). Rashi explains that this apparently superfluous word comes to teach us that Elazar and Itamar were "remaining" from death, for actually all of Aaron's sons had been sentenced to death for the sin of the Golden Calf. Only the prayers of Moses caused Hashem to repeal his decree.
If we now consider the words of the Sifsei Chachamim, the popular 17th century supercommentary on Rashi, we may understand more clearly and be able to answer our original question. He explains that Nadav and Avihu would not have been killed for their sin in the mishkan alone. However, Hashem had already given them one reprieve for a sin of misguided religious expression at the time of the Golden Calf. Thus it was only when they sinned again, having been previously warned against a similar type of behavior, that Hashem finally punished them. The Sifsei Chachamim explains further that Hashem would not have inflicted a death penalty without warning, just as a Jewish court does not issue capital punishment without a specific warning having been given to the transgressor before committing the offense. Thus we see Hashem's administration of justice and mercy going hand in hand, hopefully an example that we can all take to heart.
Matthew Leader, a native Atlantan and graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is presently a junior at Yeshiva University in New York.
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