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Sometimes trying to outdo yourself can actually be counterproductive, especially when it comes to matters of spirituality.

By: Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

This week’s Torah portion is “Shemini” (Leviticus 9:1–11:47) and in it we read about the death of two of Aaron’s sons: Nadav and Avihu. There is a wide range of opinions among the commentators regarding exactly which sin made them deserving of death.

According to one interpretation, Nadav and Avihu were punished because they entered the sanctuary while drunk. This school of thought bases their interpretation on the verses and warning which immediately follows: “Do not drink wine or strong drink, neither you nor your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, lest you die”. It’s suggested that this warning is placed right after the death of Nadav and Avihu to warn future priests not to make the same mistake they did.

Another interpretation says that the sin of Nadav and Avihu was that they remained single. That’s right! They never married nor fulfilled the sacred mitzva of having children! Although their intentions, to be devoted exclusively to God, might have been noble, it was clearly poor judgment and not what God wants from us.

They thought that they were better or holier than everyone else. In fact, we are told that there was a long line of women who were interested in marrying them. In this respect, too, we are told that they held themselves to be better than everyone else. They were known to say: “Our uncle [Moses] is king, our other uncle is the head of a tribe, our father is High Priest [Aaron], and we are his assistants, what woman could possibly be worthy of us?”

According to Kabbala, the wine with which Nadav and Avihu got drunk was from the same grapevine that Noah used to make wine after he emerged from the Ark. It was also the same vine that produced the wine that Adam and Eve drank from in the Garden of Eden. In fact, some commentators write that the “forbidden tree” of Eden was actually a grapevine! It is thus suggested that Nadav and Avihu actually tried to “repair” Adam’s sin of hiding from God, by using wine to get close to God, by using Adam’s grapes.

So on the eighth day, the day of the dedication of the Temple, a great fire came down into the Sanctuary and filled the area. The people, except for Nadav and Avihu, hid their faces. Nadav and Avihu chose to stare directly at G-d. They felt that they were going to rectify Adam’s sin. Instead of hiding from G-d like Adam did, they confronted Him. However, instead of accepting their offering, God made *them* the offering.

The message of Nadav and Avihu’s life (and death) is that we should act humbly when in the service of God. We see that trying to “do more” or “outsmart” God in our piety, although noble, is wrong. If Nadav and Avihu had simply conducted themselves like everyone else in terms of their offerings, marriage, and the other potential reasons for their deaths, they would have become great people like their brothers Elazar and Itamar.

For more insights by Rabbi Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below.








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