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SPIRITUAL AUTOPSY

by Ezra Cohen    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

"Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu. . .brought before Hashem a strange fire that He had not commanded them. A fire came forth from before Hashem and consumed them, and they died. . ." (Leviticus 10:1-2).

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"Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu. . .brought before Hashem a strange fire that He had not commanded them. A fire came forth from before Hashem and consumed them, and they died. . ." (Leviticus 10:1-2).

The above passage in this week's Torah portion reads like the front page headline of the Daily News: "Great leader's two sons die after committing heinous crime." How could two great Biblical personalities who lived during the time of Hashem's greatest revelations (the splitting of the sea and the giving of the Torah) be brought to the clutches of sin?

There are two conflicting sources in the Talmud as to the reasons surrounding the deaths of Aaron's sons. The sages state in Tractate Eruvin that Nadav and Avihu committed a grave sin - they questioned the leadership of Moses and Aaron, as the Midrash tells us, "When will these old men die so that we can lead the Jewish people!"

However, in Tractate Zevachim a totally different picture is painted of Nadav and Avihu. The Talmud states that they died for kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of G-d's name. This would seem to suggest that they did not die for their sins, but in order to glorify Hashem. There are numerous other sources in rabbinic literature which describe the greatness of Nadav and Avihu, comparing them even to Moses and Aaron in certain instances.

So were they sinners or martyrs? The answer is both. Nadav and Avihu were great men who sinned unintentionally. Nadav and Avihu realized that the Jewish people had become totally dependent upon Moses. As seen at the incident of the golden calf, the Jewish people were without their leader for just a few short unexpected hours and they couldn't imagine life without him. They responded by building the golden calf so that they could have some physical representation to look to in times of distress. Nadav and Avihu understood that the Jewish people needed reassurance that after Moses there would be a future leader whom they could trust and listen to. It was this line of thinking which helped them rationalize their actions. By questioning Moses' leadership and rendering halachic decisions without the approval of Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu hoped to reduce the people's dependence on Moses and Aaron. Through their actions, they hoped to demonstrate that there would be a continuity in the leadership of the Jewish people after the demise of Moses and Aaron. As we have seen, they were well-intentioned in their purpose, but the means which they employed were incorrect. Although they had noble intentions, their actions were nevertheless odious and they were thus deserving of Divine retribution.

What the Torah is telling us is clear - not only is the goal important, but also the ways in which we achieve the goal. The end does not justify the means. Our world is filled with people fighting for every imaginable cause. Drive and focus towards one's objective is desirable, however it is vital to continually reassess the path which we have chosen to follow towards our goal. As we chart our course and embark into the sea of life to fulfill our dreams, we should be careful not to leave a trail of casualties in our wake.

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Ezra Cohen, a native Atlantan and alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, recently graduated Yeshiva University in New York and is now studying for smicha (rabbinic ordination).

You are invited to read more Parshat Shemini articles.

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