On the eighth day, all was prepared; the Mishkan was completed and ready for service. It was meant to be a glorious day. On this day a revelation was promised, a revelation that would convey a message of forgiveness to the entire nation, and most particularly to Aharon.(1)
And Moshe said, 'This is the thing which God commanded that you should do, and the glory of God shall appear to you." And Moshe said to Aharon, "Approach the altar, and offer your sin offering, and your burnt offering, and make atonement for yourself, and for the people; and bring the offering of the people, and make atonement for them, as God commanded." (Vayikra 9:6-7)
The promise came to fruition as Moshe and Aharon blessed the people; the result was revelation and ecstasy:
And Moshe and Aharon went into the Tent of Meeting, and came out, and blessed the people; and the glory of God appeared to all the people. And there came a fire out from before God, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat; which when all the people saw, they said praise,(2) and fell on their faces. (Vayikra 9:23-24)
Perhaps caught up in the holiness of the moment, Nadav and Avihu, two sons of Aharon, proceed to bring even more fire down from heaven:
And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon, took each of them his censer, and put fire in it, and put incense on it, and offered strange fire before God, which he did not commanded them. And fire went out from before God and devoured them, and they died before God. (Vayikra 10:1-2)
Apparently, something went terribly wrong. In a stark reversal, the ecstasy turned to tears, the celebration to mourning, and the anticipated forgiveness to bitter punishment. Two of Aharon's sons were suddenly dead. While the result of their actions is clear, the significance or cause of their demise is unclear: the Torah seems silent as to the cause of their sudden deaths. Rabbinic literature abounds with possible scenarios, each describing a different but equally terrible sin that was behind this punishment. From the verses themselves, we know that on a purely technical level they had brought an offering that was not called for; specifically, they offered incense which God had not instructed. Interestingly, the Midrash goes to great lengths to limit the scope of their guilt, stressing that their only indiscretion was the bringing of this incense:
In four places Scripture records both the death of Aharon's sons and their offence as well. And why all this? To inform you that they had no other iniquity to their account except this one alone. (Bamidar Rabbah 2:24)
The Midrash notes that every time the deaths of Nadav and Avihu are mentioned, the Torah never makes a negative value judgment nor does it label them as sinners in a general sense. In fact, the Torah uses the same term, time and again, when describing their deaths: "in front of God."
R. Elazar of Modiin said: 'Go forth and see how heavily the death of Aharon's sons weighed upon the Holy One, blessed be He; for on every occasion when He records their death He also records their offence. Why all this? So as not to afford any living being a pretext for maligning them, and so that people might not say that they had been secretly misconducting themselves and had died as a result of this.' "And Nadav and Avihu died before God:" Said R. Yohanan: 'Did they indeed die before God? No; but this teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, is grieved when the children of the righteous depart from this world during the lifetime of their fathers.' "When they offered strange fire before God:" R. Yohanan of Jaffa inquired of R. Pinhas b. Hama, in the name of R. Simon: 'How is it that the phrase "before God" is used twice, while the phrase "before Aharon their father," which you find elsewhere, is used once? It teaches that the grief of the Holy One, blessed be He, was twice as keen as that of their father. (Bamidar Rabbah 2:24)
One of the most basic tenets of our belief is that all of mankind stands "in front of God" at all times: God is Omnipresent. Nonetheless, this phrase, used in this context, connotes a special proximity and intimacy with God. While death is tragic, to die "in front of God" sounds almost tantalizing.(3) And yet, it is this same description, "in front of God," that caused the Midrash to admonish us to look no further, and not to ascribe any further indiscretion to these two sons of Aharon.(4)
We should note that this same phrase appears in the verses that immediately precede the tragedy; there, too a fire came "from in front of God" - to indicate God's acceptance of the offering.
And there came a fire out from before God, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat; which when all the people saw, they said praise,(5) and fell on their faces. (Vayikra 9:24)
The Mei Shiloch says that their deaths came from an excess of love of God, from an uncontrolled desire for intimacy with God.(6) Rebbi Nachman is quoted as saying that they were carried away by the holiness of the moment: after experiencing the revelation at the convocation of the Mishkan they felt an intense desire to embrace and be consumed by the divine, even though death would surely be the result.(7)
This approach is reminiscent Rashi's explanation of the demise of Ben Azzai, one of the four great scholars who entered pardes. Pardes was a mystical journey undertaken by four of the greatest sages of their time:
Our Rabbis taught: Four men entered Pardes, namely, Ben Azzai and Ben Zoma, Aher, and R. Akiva. R. Akiva said to them: 'When you arrive at the stones of pure marble, do not say, "water, water!" For it is written [Tehilim 101]: "He that speaks falsehood can not be exist before me." Ben Azzai cast a look and died. Of him Scripture says [Tehilim 116]: "Precious in the sight of God is the death of His devout ones." Ben Zoma looked and was struck. Of him Scripture says [Mishlei 25]: "Have you found honey? Eat as much as is sufficient for you, lest you be filled with it, and vomit it." Aher mutilated the shoots. R. Akiva (entered unscathed and) departed unscathed.
Rashi explains the death of Ben Azzai:
He looked - at the Schechina.
"Precious in the sight of God is the death of His devout ones" - His death was difficult before God, for he died young, nonetheless it was impossible that he not die, for it says [Shmot 33] "For man cannot see Me and live". (Rashi Talmud Bavli Chagiga 14b)
The implication is that Ben Azzai looked and beheld the Divine Shechina and therefore died, for "man can not see Me and live" - and if he looks - he will die. Ben Azzai, like Nadav and Avihu, beheld the Shechina and could not return to a pedestrian life. The pull of the Divine was like a magnet, too inviting, too intense; return to earthly life from such a spiritual plane is impossible.(8) This was explained to Moshe by God Himself: in the aftermath of the Golden Calf debacle, it seemed that the magnitude of their transgression would lead to the demise of the entire nation, but Moshe implores God, and gains favor and forgiveness for the nation. When Moshe senses that this is a moment of mercy, he seizes the opportunity and asks God:
And he said, 'I beg You, show me Your Glory.' And He said, 'I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of God before you; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.' And he said, 'You can not see My face; for no man shall see Me and live.' And God said, 'Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand upon a rock; And it shall come to pass, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by. And I will take away my hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen.' (Shmot 33:18-23)
Moshe asks for a higher level of revelation, and is told it would always be incomplete; human beings cannot assimilate a face-to-face encounter with the Divine. Pure spirituality negates the human condition, makes it an impossibility. Moshe learns that there are limits, barriers that will always exist between God and man. But Nadav and Avihu, like Ben Azzai generations later, forge ahead; they seek a greater degree of encounter than is humanly possible. They attempt to see God, to engage God in an impossible rendezvous. They cause the fire to emerge and consume them. Already at Sinai we are told of a near catastrophe, for there were those who looked when they should have averted their eyes.
And he said to Moshe, 'Come up to God, you, and Aharon, Nadav, and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel; and worship from far away…' Then Moshe, and Aharon, Nadav, and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up; And they saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet a kind of paved work of a sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And upon the nobles of the people of Israel He laid not his hand; also they saw God, and ate and drank. (Shmot 24:1,9-11)
They looked and glanced(9) and were guilty of an offence requiring death, but God did not wish to combine (their deaths) with the joy of the Torah. He waited (to carry out punishment) on Nadav and Avihu until the day of the consecration of the Mishkan. (Rashi, Shmot 24:10)
Here, once again, one of our foremost sages finds that Nadav and Avihu were, in fact, guilty of other transgressions. In this instance, this may be seen not as an additional, unrelated "sin", but as an earlier incidence of the same transgression: Both at the foot of Mount Sinai and on the day of the consecration of the Mishkan, Nadav and Avihu attempted to see what they should not have seen, boldly going forward when they should have obeyed the boundaries of human experience.
What made them so bold? The details of their biographies may hold the answer. They were scions of an illustrious family, as we know: Their paternal grandparents, Amram and Yocheved, were leaders of the Jewish People in Egypt, and those leadership qualities were passed on to their father's generation, to Moshe, Miriam and Aharon. Their maternal ancestry was also quite impressive: Aharon's wife, Nadav and Avihu's mother, was a woman named Elisheva, and when her marriage to Aharon is recorded, the Torah shares some information that at first glance seems superfluous:
And Aharon took Elisheva, daughter of Aminadav, sister of Nachshon, for his wife; and she bore him Nadav, and Avihu, Elazar, and Itamar. (Shmot 6:23)
Elisheva is described not only as her father's daughter but also as her brother's sister. Why is her brother's identity significant? Rashi, who was clearly perturbed by this oddity, illuminates the lesson we learn from this anomaly:
Sister of Nachshon - from here we learn that one who weds a woman should scrutinize (the character) of her brothers. (Rashi, Shmot 6:23)
Nachson was a leading member of the tribe of Yehudah.(10) But he is remembered primarily for boldly jumping into the sea as the Egyptians pursued them, and act which precipitated the splitting of the sea:
R. Yehuda said to [R. Meir]: That is not what happened; but each tribe was unwilling to be the first to enter the sea. Then Nahshon the son of Amminadav sprang forward and descended first into the sea; as it is said (Hoshea 12): "Ephraim encompasses me about with falsehood, and the house of Israel with deceit; but Yehudah yet rules (or, descends) with God." (Talmud Bavli Sotah 37a)
When all the others were afraid to jump into the water, Nachshon had no fear. He was brave and bold, and his faith in God was complete; into the water he leaped. To reward him for his unflinching faith and courage, he was the first tribe leader to bring an offering on the day the Mishkan was consecrated.(11) He was first to step up to the challenge of faith at the banks of the sea, and first to consecrate the Mishkan, first to bring a sacrifice and draw closer to God. Nadav and Avihu, nephews of Nachshon, were no less bold. They, too, hoped to forge ahead, to blaze a new trail to God. At the foot of Mount Sinai, they did not turn away from the Shechina. Once again, on the eighth day of the consecration of the Mishkan, they seek out the Shechina, leaping forward rather than obeying the natural lines of human experience, bringing incense that was not prescribed. They turn toward the Schechina; as a result, God embraces them. They leave behind their human limitations and form, and God takes them.
As readers, we are numb; if all they wanted was spirituality, proximity, intimacy with the Divine, then they got exactly what they wanted. Nonetheless, the result seems somehow unfair, unjust. Their "sin" was that they wanted to engage God, to be in front of God - to grasp the mystery.
And yet, even Moshe, the human being who above all others enjoyed such intimacy and proximity, was denied the very thing Nadav and Avihu sought to take by force. Even Moshe, the greatest prophet of the Jewish People, the man who stood with God for forty days and forty nights, who stepped outside of the physical limitations of the human form - even Moshe accepted the spiritual limitations that are part and parcel of humanity: It is impossible for man to see God's "face"; humans may see God's "back". Jewish tradition has always understood this limitation as anthropomorphism, as a metaphor that establishes and elucidates much deeper philosophical truths about human understanding, human experience and spirituality. According to the Talmud,(12) what Moshe asked for was an explanation of theodicy, an answer to the age old question of why bad things happen to good people. Clearly, this would require a type of prescience and omniscience that is beyond human abilities - even for Moshe: the "face", the entire, all-encompassing countenance of the future that provides a unified rationale for all of human history, cannot be seen; all we can see is the "back". We have the ability to see God's attributes as we look back on human history and understand that God's Hand guided all the seemingly random events of the past.
The Talmud extends this metaphor, connecting it with another mystery of Jewish life: When Moshe saw "God's back", what he saw was the "knot of the tefillin" on the "back of God's head."
"And I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back." R. Hama b. Bizna said in the name of R. Simon the Pious: 'This teaches us that the Holy One, blessed be He, showed Moshe the knot of the tefillin.' (Talmud Bavli Brachot 7a)
While this seems quite fanciful, a profound lesson lies beneath the surface of the text. tefillin are worn high on the forehead behind the hairline; two straps lie on the chest, one near the right arm, and the other near the left. To the casual observer, it appears that the right side, identified with compassion, and left side, associated with judgment,(13) are independent. This is what might be learned regarding God's attributes if one were to see "God's face": The God of Compassion and the God of Judgment at odds with one another, as it were. Only when we see the knot of the tefillin, on the back of the head, do we realize that what seem to be two distinct attributes, the right and left, compassion and judgment, come from the same place. Although often seemingly independent, presented on two sides, they share a common origin, and are in fact one.(14) Similarly, while we may see Jewish history as a series of random events, while we may be unable to understand the wisdom of God's judgment, while we may not discern the connection between our personal or national history and God's trait of Compassion, this is because we are unable, as limited human beings, to comprehend "God's face." We are, as Jews, given the spiritual capacity to understand "God's back." We are reminded each day, by the knot of the tefillin, that all of God's attributes are a unified whole, and all of human history is guided by His wisdom.
Nadav and Avihu die, as they must. But is this a harsh and exacting judgment? They die precisely where they want to be: in front of God. They are taken - with a kiss and an embrace. Truly, God is one, and his Compassion and Judgment are one; they are intertwined and united.
1. See Toldot Yitzchak, Vayikra 9:22.
2. Rashi directs us to the Targum who translates vayaronu as praise. The Recanati rendersvayaronu "with songs (or praise) like the Levites."
3. The Megaleh Amukot, Parshat V'etchanan, aspect 90, says that they died "by God's kiss"; this description also highlights their proximity and intimacy with God at the moment of their death.
4. Presumably those commentaries who take this Midrash into account yet nonetheless point to any number of shortcomings as the reasons for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, are trying to explain the underlying cause that led them to bring the "foreign fire".
5. Rashi directs us to the Targum who translates vayaronu as praise. The Recanati says with songs (or praise) like the Levites.
6. Mei Shiloch Acharei Mot.
7. Likutei Halachot Hilchot Nitilat Yadayim L'seuda law 6.
8. The comments of the Maharsha to Chagiga 14b explain how Ben Azzai was enticed to proceed further than the others, yet he stops short of saying that Ben Azzai actually beheld the Shechina; that would imply that Ben Azzai was on a greater level than Moshe.
9. The word hititz is also found regarding Ben Azzai see Liquity Halachat Hichot Nedarim law 3.
10. Bamidbar 1:7, 7:12, 10:14, Ruth 4:20.
11. See Bamidbar 7:12, and Rashi Vayikra 10:16.
12. Talmud Bavli Brachot 7a. The Talmud debates weather this request was granted.
13. See Mishna Breurah 4:22.
14. See Pri Etz Chaim, Shaar Tefilin chapter 2.