The cruelty of understanding

“The sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire pan, they put fire in them and placed incense upon it; and they brought before Hashem an alien fire that He had not commanded them. A fire came forth from before Hashem and consumed them, and they died before Hashem.” (Leviticus 10:1-2)

This is one of several stories in Torah where it is not entirely clear what sin was committed that warrants such a serious punishment.

We must remember that despite their tragic end, Nadav and Avihu were spiritual giants. God describes them as such in verse 3, “I will be sanctified by those who are nearest to Me!”

I’d like to share a profound approach to this mysterious passage developed by Rabbi Zvi Dov Kanatopsky, z”l. He based his approach upon the commentary of Rabbenu Bachya who suggested that the mistake of Aharon’s sons was in offering incense that was meant to placate God’s attribute of justice – while they didn’t direct their attention to the attribute of mercy. This may sound a bit fuzzy now, but let’s slowly unpack what might be meant.

In order to understand these remarks, Rav Kanatopsky insists that we have to put the incident of Nadav and Avihu into the general context of the drama in which it takes place. It was the eighth day of the inauguration of the Tabernacle when Aharon was supposed to take over from Moshe and begin his service. This is described in the ninth chapter of Leviticus.

The Midrashim explain that after Aharon’s introduction into the service of the sanctuary, everyone expected the Glory of God to appear. However, when this failed to happen, the people became very upset. Aharon had offered the appropriate sacrifices and blessed the people, but there was no sign of the appearance of the Glory of God. In this charged atmosphere, Moshe and Aharon quickly entered the Tabernacle to pray and then emerged to once again bless the people.

Perhaps the people were worried that because of the sin of the Golden Calf, they would no longer experience the presence of God. Moshe and Aharon, driven by their concern for the people felt that something must be done. So they entered the sanctuary and appealed to God’s attribute of mercy and then emerged to bless the people over and over again to calm their fears. There is no thought given at all to blaming the people for the situation. It’s in this context that we can begin to understand the misdeed of Nadav and Avihu.

These two sons of Aharon appear in another episode of the Torah that, according to the Midrash, is related to the event we are now examining. In Exodus 24, we are told that at the Sinai revelation, Moshe, Aharon, Nadav, Avihu and 70 elders went up the mountain, “and they saw the God of Israel, and under His feet, so to speak, the making of a sapphire brick, and the very essence of the heavens in purity. Against the great men of the children of Israel, He did not stretch out His hand – and they gazed at God, yet they ate and drank.” (Exodus 24:9-11).

This account is clearly of a very mystical experience, and since God is not physical, they did see anything tangible. They didn’t see God, but like many other Divine encounters in the Torah – they were experiencing a prophetic vision. According to Rashi’s commentary, because Nadav and Avihu as well as the 70 elders gazed too intently here, they deserved to be punished. But because God did not want to disturb the glorious occasion of the revelation, He delayed their punishment until later. The 70 were punished in the incident of the “complainers” (Numbers 11:1) while Nadav and Avihu were punished in our story of Leviticus chapter 10.

In his comments to the incident of Nadav and Avihu gazing too intently at the prophetic vision of God, Nachmanides notes that what they saw was similar to the mystical vision of Ezekiel (chapter 1). Ezekiel saw the purity of the heavens above the angels, something like a sapphire stone and above it a chair and above that a vision of God.

If you carefully compare these mystical prophetic visions, you’ll note that they are seeing the same thing, but from a different perspective. Ezekiel sees the heavens first, then the sapphire above the heavens and then a vision of God above the stone. In the vision of Nadav and Avihu, they first see a vision of God, then the sapphire brick under His “feet”, then they see the purity of the heavens.

It is quite obvious that in terms of perspective, Ezekiel is looking up, but Nadav and Avihu and looking down! Both visions deal with the relationship between the Almighty and the children of Israel, which is often painful and tragic. Ezekiel views this relationship as a human being, standing on the ground and looking up. Nadav and Avihu view the relationship like angels, from above and looking down.

Ezekiel looking upward, himself in the midst of tragedy, sees the heavens open and has a vision of God. He falls in prostration and prays to God to temper His attribute of justice and to manifest His attribute of mercy. Nadav and Avihu, however, viewing the relationship from above, see the full correctness of the attribute of justice. They understand the attribute of justice in God’s relationship with Israel and are at peace with it. “They saw Elokim (the name of God in His attribute of justice) and they can eat and drink.”

There is a Midrashic tradition that Nadav and Avihu saw the sapphire brick as a replica of the bricks that Israel made in Egypt. The brick appeared like beautiful sapphire to them because they understood the attribute of justice and looking down, saw history the way God does. Rabbi Kanatopsky avers that had Ezekiel seen this brick, it would have been made of blood and flesh and tortured bodies.

The reaction of Nadav and Avihu is to understand the attribute of justice. Ezekiel, as well as Moshe and Aharon, never make peace with the attribute of justice and assume the “cruelty” of understanding. When Moshe and Aharon saw that the services in the sanctuary went unanswered, they prayed and offered blessings. They appealed to God’s attribute of mercy and again and again bless the people to lift their spirits and assure them that God will be with them.

Nadav and Avihu, from their perspective, are fully in tune with the attribute of justice and make peace with it. They feel that the people are simply not worthy of God’s presence after their transgressions. All they are able to do is offer incense, which is an attempt to quiet the attribute of justice. But their action reflects that they had made peace with the attribute of justice because they understood it so well. They reacted to the tension of that eighth day by assuming a full understanding of God’s apparent lack of response to the service of the people. When it comes to human suffering, this kind of understanding and being at peace with it borders on cruelty. Moshe and Aharon, infused with love and compassion for the people, pray on their behalf, and “the Glory of God appeared to all the people.” (Leviticus 9:23).

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