The entire episode of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu abounds with questions, and our commentaries vary widely in their explanations of the event. Flaming death from above in the middle of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) must surely be a punishment for a specific and horrible offense.
The entire episode of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu abounds with questions, and our commentaries vary widely in their explanations of the event. Flaming death from above in the middle of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) must surely be a punishment for a specific and horrible offense. Yet the explanations of that offense offered by the sages range from the seemingly insignificant (not wearing proper attire), to the capricious, in bringing an "uncommanded" fire. The worst possibility that is ascribed to the sin is that the pair were waiting for Moses and Aaron to die, so that they could take over leadership of the Jewish people.
But with all of the attempted interpretations of this incident, there is a base understanding that what the actual event was doesn't really matter. We have long recognized that we, as humans, lack the capacity for divine calculation necessary to clarify the exact scales of justice at work in Hashem's administration of justice. The good suffer while the evil flourish, or we win the lottery after cheating our friends, and in our grasp for understanding we ultimately come to the moment of triage when we take whatever morals we can find. For the rest, we just try to remind ourselves that Hashem "works in mysterious ways".
But this is in the regal, divine area of justice. Our rabbis tell us that if the world were ruled by the law of Hashem's justice alone, it could not last for an instant. So Hashem gave us mercy, which lets the world, and especially humanity, survive. We are afraid of justice, at the same time we don't understand it; when we consciously do something wrong, we are almost waiting for that second when the lightning will come from the sky and zap us.
But it doesn't, and deep down we know - if we believe that Hashem really is watching - that we have been the recipients of mercy. If so, we are much more familiar with this characteristic of mercy than with justice. So the real understanding we must look for in the Nadav and Avihu episode is not the impenetrable mystery of their punishment, but the next moments. Where are comfort and empathy after loss? Our human understanding instinctively feels that something else should be there, a period of mourning or reflection, or even a word of comfort and strength from Moses. Strangely, the aftermath at the beginning of this week's portion is merely a dry explanation of the Yom Kippur service. How does this address the anguish that Aaron must be feeling at the loss of his two precious sons?
Perhaps here lies the greater understanding of mercy and empathy. Friends and family may be able to shower a sufferer with attention, care, and warmth, but it is only time that truly heals a wound. And time is the ability to reconcile your loss that was suffered under the harsh dictates of justice with the slow process of mercy. For all of their concern, no other human can truly share another's pain, especially not the unfathomable suffering of losing a child. Yet Hashem, who created Nadav and Avihu and all other living beings, was their father as much as Aaron and his wife. So what comfort could be greater than Hashem giving instructions to Aaron for the time when Man and Hashem are closest on earth - the Yom Kippur service in the kodesh hakedoshim (the Holy of Holies). Moses, for all his sanctity, would never live that same moment of spirituality that Aaron would experience on that day. That, therefore, was Hashem's empathy to Aaron in his time of need; instructions on how to create a connection between Aaron and Hashem, and a promise that He would come close and comfort His child at the end, "Acharei Mot" - after the death of Aaron's two sons.
Matthew Leader, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta and a recent graduate of Yeshiva University, resides in New York.
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