THE UNDERLYING WEAKNESS
Indeed, it would seem obvious from the verse why Nadav and Avihu were punished and even why they were killed in the manner in which they were. Vayikra 10:1 states that they brought a strange fire before God and, it would clearly seem, that it was for this reason that the next verse informs us that God brought forth a fire to consume them. It, as such, should be no surprise that Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, Emet L’Yaakov, Vayikra 10:2 questions why the Midrashic Rabbis subsequently felt so compelled to present various, different reasons for the demise of these two sons of Aharon. It is not solely that there are so many different explanations offered1 -- although one may also wonder why the Rabbis felt the need for such disagreement – but the essential issue is the very fact that that the verse already presents the answer. What is further perplexing is that, on the surface, the midrashic reasons even seem to have limited connection to the explanation of the foreign fire presented in the verse. What did the Rabbis see in the story that compelled them to offer their explanations?2
Rav Yaakov explains that what was truly bothering the Midrashic Rabbis was the underlying reason for why Nadav and Avihu, two exceptionally righteous individuals, could have failed in the manner that they did. There is no doubt that the act that precipitated their demise was the bringing of the foreign fire but the real question is: why would they have done this? What was the underlying character fault that led them to undertake this sinful action of bringing the strange fire? It is in regard to this issue that the Rabbis presented their differing viewpoints, each one building upon the other in the attempt to define the essential, underlying weakness that culminated in Nadav and Avihu’s sin. The essential lesson of the story is thus more focused through the midrashic analysis. We often see sin in narrow terms, defined by the parameters of an act itself. The story of Nadav and Avihu informs us to expand our understanding through recognizing that a sinful act is but the narrow encapsulation of the problem. The greater need is to understand the motivation behind the act.
This challenge is intensified with the recognition of the righteousness of these two sons of Aharon. An act of sin reflects a weakness in character that should be our essential focus in considering a good life; our call, as such, should be on this latter consideration more so than the former – but that is often, actually, an easy task to undertake. We can often clearly define an underlying weakness in character. With stories such as this one, though, that involve righteous individuals, this determination is obviously much more difficult – often, thereby demonstrating the general difficulty of this challenge even when we may think we clearly understand the nature of an evil. With Nadav and Avihu, there must have been a reason why they thought their behaviour was correct. The motivation that led to their behaviour must have contained elements of their generally righteous characters. Indeed, Rav Yaakov tries to show how, pursuant to various midrashic perspectives, they must have had positive explanations for their actions. Such righteous individuals had to have good reasons to believe that what they were doing and thinking was proper. If their conclusions were, however, justifiable, why were then still held so accountable for their actions? In being held so responsible, what was the problem with this perceived righteous motivation? The text presents the simple, linear explanation of what happened. Nadav and Avihu did something wrong for which they were punished. It is the midrash that opens us up to the true of complexity of what really occurred – a complexity that we are then to consider in all our human encounters.
It may actually be this recognition of complexity that is at the core of the lesson to be learned from this story. In whatever way that one tries to explain this event, there would seem to be a lack. Even the simplest explanation of what occurred – that they offered a strange fire that was not commanded – is hard to understand. If they knew that it was wrong to do so, why would such righteous individuals undertake this action? If, though, they had reason to believe that it was proper to do so, why would they be punished? Even if their conclusion was wrong, we may still wonder why they would be held so accountable -- for wasn’t their motivation still to do something right and isn’t intention always a mitigating factor in our assessment of an evil act?3 The fact is that T.B. Eruvin 63a actually informs us that they thought they were doing a mitzvah, that they thought it was right to bring this fire. The weakness in character must, as such, include a factor that allows one to think that something wrong is really correct. That often emerges from an inability to recognize the complexity of a matter.
This same gemara expresses the view that Nadav and Avihu’s core fault was that they rendered a decision before Moshe Rabbeinu, their teacher. Hesitancy in rendering halachic decisions is often a reflection of a recognition of the complexity of such matters and this is clearly indicated in this law to refrain from such activity in the presence of one’s teacher. Why decide? -- ask your teacher. But would Nadav and Avihu not know this? Interestingly, this very same gemara also presents a case when one should not be hesitant and one should voice a decision even in the presence of a teacher. Tosfot, d.h. Mah Darush seems to further imply a possible similar reasoning in Nadav and Avihu in the matter before them. The issue, it would seem, was actually most complicated and I clearly cannot judge Nadav and Avihu, two such righteous individuals, regarding their response. That was for God, Whose decision, it would seem, was also most involved. I can, however, learn from this the necessary truth of the complexity of life of which we must constantly be aware.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
1 Rav Yaakov himself mentions these different explanations, however, for a further list, see Yalkut Shimoni, Shemini 524. Rashi, Vayikra 10:2 also feels compelled to present two of these midrashc explanations. .
2 In light of the nature of Torah She’b’al Peh [the Oral Law] and the strong possibility that these reasons, orally preserved, were already known even at the time of the event, we may wish to phrase the question differently: why the seeming discrepancy between the textual presentation and the orally preserved tradition? This distinction in the language of this question touches upon the most complex subject of the nature of Torah She’b’al Peh which is, though, beyond the parameters of this Insight. It should be noted, though, that the investigation of a supposed chasm between a text and a midrashic comment is always an important area of Torah study.
3 I am referring to the need, in order to hold someone liable in court, for that person to be warned before committing the crime. God’s justice, of course, is not limited by this requirement for He knows the true motivation of a person. In any event, although Nadav and Avihu were punished by God, if we are to learn from the story, we must understand the problem in motivation and be ever concerned that we do not make similar mistakes.
© Nishma 2013
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