Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 7 April 2018 / 22 Nisan 5778

Parshat Shemini

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
The Color of Heaven Artscroll

Presumptuous Offering

“And Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his pan, put fire into them and placed incense upon it, and they brought near before G-d strange fire which He had not commanded them.” (Vayikra 10:1)

On the day the Mishkan was consecrated, Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon, were punished for bringing an offering, a “strange fire,” which was not commanded. Although their intention was praiseworthy, indeed the Mishkan is considered sanctified by the death of these “close ones of G-d” (Vayikra 10:3) - their actions were misguided. Rav Hirsch explains that presumptuousness was the compass that led them astray.

The text is full of clues. They are introduced not by name, but as “the sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu.” Even though they were the sons of Aharon, they did not consult with their father. Or, as the celebrated sons of Aharon, they felt they were under no obligation to seek advice from their father, or anyone else. Indeed, “each man took his pan,” indicating that each one acted on his own initiative and did not even consult one another.

Their offering was motivated by the great joy in witnessing the fire descending to the Mishkan; they were inspired, responding with love. (Torat Kohanim) The problem lies in the fact that the entire nation witnessed this glorious revelation of G-d’s nearness, and yet Nadav and Avihu felt compelled to express their sentiments, separately, by their own offering. Two aspects of their offering are emphasized in the text: their very “drawing near” was misguided, and the actual offering was illegal in every respect. The vessels used in the Sanctuary service are required to be communal property, but they used their own pans. The fire, too, was not fire from the altar, as is ordinarily required, but was fire from their own hearths (the “strange fire”). Their act was inconsistent with the spirit of priesthood, in which the kohen, in self-renunciation, stands in loving representation of the nation before G-d. Finally, the content of the offering was highly problematic. Ketoret is the only offering that is never brought as a voluntary offering. Ketoret symbolizes the person who is completely absorbed in bringing Gd satisfaction, and can only be properly expressed as a goal set by G-d Himself. If given expression by one’s own volition, it entails great arrogance. This is why the fact that “He had not commanded them,” even apart from its legal deficiencies, was sufficient to make it forbidden.

The root of korban is karev, to bring near. But such nearness may be sought and earned only by way of acceptance of and obedience to His commandments. This is the lesson that the nation learned on the first day of the Sanctuary service and it is the lesson that informs our service today.

  • Sources: Commentary, Vayikra 10:1

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