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The sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu… brought before G-d a strange fire that He did not command them (to bring). Fire came forth from G-d and it consumed them, and they died before G-d (10:1-2).
The precise reasons for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu are discussed at length by the commentators. The Sifra, in regard to the above text, states that they erred in bringing their own ketoret - frankincense - into the Holy of Holies. This was forbidden territory to all except the High Priest, and then only on Yom Kippur. The Ramban (in his comment to 17:2) questions this, preferring the explanation that they offered the regular daily ketoret on the Inner Altar, the mizbach ha-zahav, when they had not been commanded to do so. Rashi quotes the variant traditions in the Talmud (Eruvin 63a) which are not directly implied in this text: that they impinged on Moses' authority in giving a Halachic decision in his presence (R. Eliezer), and that they entered the Sanctuary under the influence of wine (R. Yishmael).
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 52a) brings a different tradition, whereby Nadav remarked to Avihu that they themselves would lead the Israelites once the "old men" Moses and Aaron died. Whereupon G-d rejoined with "We shall see who will bury whom".
It may well be close to the simple explanation, as bringing the ketoret was the sole prerogative of the kohen gadol, the high priest. (That indeed was the test that Korach and his followers went through: the person from whom G-d would accept the ketoret from would be the one He chose - Num. 16:7). As they were not yet high priests, the fire that they brought was indeed a 'strange fire' - as they were not the people that G-d had chosen.
In addition, there is no mention of Nadav and Avihu being involved at any stage of the construction of the Temple. Nor did they offer any initiative. Had their "surprise item" within the Tabernacle inauguration service been accepted, they would have received honor from the people. It is very similar to where those that stride the podium get the credit, whereas people who work hard behind the scenes do not even get a thank you.
In addition, Nadav and Avihu's sudden appearance in a procedure that was supposed to the sole prerogative of their father might be construed as a breach of the fifth commandment - honoring parents - especially when done in the public eye in those very unique circumstances.
Perhaps this is a lesson that a person can learn from the story, as we combine the reasons from the various sources. Credit should only go to where it is due. The human desire for public acclaim and honor is great, and the narrative could be indicating that Nadav and Avihu wanted it on the cheap. They did not work for it. They approached without permission (thus issuing a ruling before their teacher). As their father was involved, that could have been compounded by a public breach of the fifth commandment. They may well have been enthusiastic, but the genuine nature of their enthusiasm may been tainted through having had a drink too many. And the notion that they could have used it as a stepping-stone to future power is what provoked G-d's rejoinder: "We will see who shall bury whom".
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Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
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