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CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

by Michael Alterman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

One of the most perplexing events in the Torah is the sudden deaths of Aaron's two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, described in this week's portion. This tragic event occurred on the eighth and final day of the inauguration ceremonies for the newly-constructed Mishkan (Tabernacle).

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One of the most perplexing events in the Torah is the sudden deaths of Aaron's two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, described in this week's portion. This tragic event occurred on the eighth and final day of the inauguration ceremonies for the newly-constructed Mishkan (Tabernacle). While offering the ketoret (incense) for the first time in what were sure to be promising lives of Divine service and leadership, a heavenly fire descended to consume these great young men. The reason offered by the Torah for their death is vague, with the text informing us only that they were killed because "they brought a strange fire before Hashem that He had not commanded them" (Leviticus 10:1). Recognizing the supreme sanctity of the people involved (G-d Himself describes Nadav and Avihu as "those who are nearest to Me"), the sages devoted many pages towards grappling with this horrible tragedy and seeking an accurate understanding of this passage.

Numerous interpretations are offered by the classic sources to explain the "strange fire" for which they were punished. The majority seem to revolve around some lacking of humility latent in these great sons of Aaron. However, less discussed is why their tragic death had to occur specifically at this time. Whatever their error was, how are we to comprehend the instantaneous Divine response, carrying out the death sentence while they were still in the Mishkan on the glorious day of its inauguration? Why might Hashem allow the mistakes of two people to apparently ruin the festive dedication of the house of G-d which was being celebrated by the entire nation?

Rabbi Meir Simcha HaKohen of Dvinsk, in his early 20th century magnum opus on the Torah, suggests that to understand a possible reason why they were punished specifically at this time, we must first recall what transpired to the Jewish people in the desert over the past year. Soon after their miraculous exodus from Egypt, Hashem appeared to His young nation through the revelation at Mt. Sinai, elevating them as a group to a spiritual level of prophecy unparalleled in all of history. Remarkably, a mere 40 days later, that same nation suddenly fell from their lofty heights and committed the treacherous sin of the golden calf. Not only were they no longer worthy for the Divine presence to continually reside in their camp, their very existence was called into question in the heavenly courts. Only through Moses' dedicated prayers and their sincere teshuvah (repentance) did Hashem agree not to destroy them.

After several months on the mountain, Moses returned to the camp with the second set of tablets of the Ten Commandments. The Jewish people immediately began making preparations for the construction of the Mishkan, the edifice which promised to make possible the return of Hashem's presence to His people. As this week's Torah portion begins, they were about to complete the inauguration service of this extraordinary structure. However, with the illustrious moment approaching, the Jewish people were in danger of making a grave error in their perception of G-d's system of justice.

Although Hashem does not always respond to our actions with an immediate reward or punishment, every deed that we do is accounted for with absolute precision. Every mitzvah carries with it the priceless reality that it brings us closer to our Creator; every transgression results in a weakening of that special relationship. So fundamental is the principle of reward and punishment that the Talmud declares, "Whoever says that Hashem overlooks his actions will have his life 'overlooked'" (Tractate Baba Kama 50a). Similarly, Maimonides lists recognition of this system of reward and punishment as the 11th of the "13 Principles of Faith".

Seeing that G-d's presence was returning, the Jewish people could have made the catastrophic mistake of thinking that the golden calf debacle had simply been overlooked by G-d. In truth, Divine retribution for the sin was only mitigated and delayed through the power of prayer and repentance. Neither mitzvah nor transgression is forgotten; nothing falls outside the realm of G-d's justice. This, says the Talmud, is the meaning of the verse near the end of the Torah: "Perfect is His work, for all His paths are just" (Deuteronomy 32:4).

As such, perhaps G-d deemed it necessary to punish Nadav and Avihu specifically on the day of the Mishkan's inauguration, coinciding with the return of His presence, to teach the Jewish people this fundamental lesson. By way of the strict punishment of these two great men, we are reminded not to view our actions lightly. G-d certainly takes everything we do seriously. Clearly, if the demands of justice and truth (upon which this world is built) are to be met, Hashem must evaluate our every action and respond accordingly. Through their tragic deaths, Nadav and Avihu were the bearers of this critical message to their people. While G-d was returning His glorious presence to the Jewish people, He was also teaching them how to keep His presence with them.

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Michael Alterman, a graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is a student at the Ner Israel Rabbinical College and Johns Hopkins University, both in Baltimore.

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