The Torah reading this week contains Jewish dietary restrictions. At least equally important, however, are laws pertaining to soul-searching and treating others with respect.

This week’s Torah portion is Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47). Although famous for the “kosher laws,” I would like to focus on a different section: the tragic and untimely death of Nadav and Avihu, two of the sons of Moses’s brother Aaron.

As the Torah says:

“Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, took their censers and put a fire in them. They put incense on each one and brought a strange fire before God which He had not commanded them. And a fire went out from before God and consumed them – and they died.” (Lev. 10:1-2)

Why did Nadav and Avihu deserve to die?

There are many questions here! In fact, to use the Torah’s term: Something very “strange” is going on.

What did Nadav and Avihu do that was so terrible? Why did they deserve to die? So what if God did not “command” them to bring this fire/incense offering – what is so bad about making an offering to God voluntarily?

Only two verses, but so many questions! Indeed, there may be more commentary on these two verses than on any others in the entire Torah.

Some sages explain that the sin of Nadav and Avihu was not that they offered an unauthorized sacrifice to God, but that they did so while intoxicated. (And no, they could not blame the recent Purim holiday for having drank too much! The Purim story had not yet happened!)

This opinion is supported by the verse following the recounting of their death, which warns Aaron and all priests never to be intoxicated when performing the holy service. In fact, according to Jewish law, it is forbidden even to pray when inebriated.

Another commentary argues that Nadav and Avihu did not ask Moses or Aaron for permission to make such an offering. Nadav and Avihu did not feel any need to take counsel; they took the liberty of bypassing “the system” and proper protocol. In fact, the Midrash (homiletic stories told by the sages to explain passages) teaches that the brothers would fantasize about the day when “these two leaders [Moses and Aaron] die already so we can take over!”

According to this approach, they took matters into their own hands, thinking they were in charge, and for this they were deserving of death.

It must be noted, however, that according to all opinions, Nadav and Avihu were ultimately well-meaning and very spiritual. They did not intend to rebel for rebellion’s sake. Their severe punishment was commensurate with their high spiritual standing.

Two Lessons Can be Learned

So what is the Torah’s message?

I would like to suggest that there are at least two lessons we can learn from the story of Nadav and Avihu. The first is that intention and motivation are not enough. As the saying goes: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

To follow protocol and precedent, especially when the honor of those older and wiser is at stake, is sometimes the preferred approach, even if it means not doing the well-intended good deed.

Second, this story may also provide an opportunity to reflect on the dangers of alcoholism and other addictions. Nobody is immune from these dangers, not even spiritual giants like Nadav and Avihu.

The Torah may also be teaching us that no one should feel ashamed of having been carried away by alcoholism or any other addiction. People greater than us have fallen into that trap. God loves every single person regardless of his or her weaknesses. Our job is to recognize our vulnerabilities and work on improving ourselves.

This, friends, is the greatest personal sacrifice you could ever offer Him!

Author: Rabbi Ari Enkin,
Spiritual Director, United with Israel
Date: Mar. 20, 2014

Click below to read more Living Torah articles on this week’s Torah portion:

1. Living Torah: The ‘Aaron Model’ of Peace

2. The Jewish Diet: Why Eat Kosher?