The deaths of Nadav and Avihu have long troubled biblical commentaries. The multiple suggestions put forth demonstrate that—objectively speaking—whatever the true nature of their sin may have been, it does not seem to have warranted the death penalty. Under different circumstances, or had others done what they did, they likely would have been spared. But not Nadav and Avihu.
Sefer Vayikra opens with the bringing of voluntary sacrifices, an olah (burnt offering), mincha (flour offering, and shelamim (peace offering). While there are times when these sacrifices are mandated as described in later chapters of the Torah, it is the voluntary act of bringing a gift to G-d, of sharing with others (as was done with sacrifices), that is most noble. It is only in chapter four that we first hear of the obligatory korban, the chatat (sin) offering, and even then, it is for “a person who inadvertently sins”.
This notion of voluntary offerings to G-d is one that permeates the building of the mishkan. The Torah, in describing the contributions of the Jewish people toward the mishkan, often uses the expression “nediv libo”, a gift from the heart. The mishkan was build from the trumot, the voluntary gifts, of the Jews. The willingness to volunteer was so great that that Moshe had to tell them to stop, as their gifts were no longer required (Shemot 36:6).
What could be more natural and praiseworthy upon the dedication of that mishkan than bringing a sacrifice, specifically one “they were not commanded”? And in truth, Moshe—in the immediate aftermath of their deaths—implies that objectively speaking, what they did was most worthy: “This is what G-d meant when He declared, ‘With those closest to Me, I shall be sanctified'”. So that just begs the question: Why did they have to die?
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, and My ways are not yours” (Isaiah 55:8). The ways of G-d are hidden from us, and the only possible response is that of Aaron, the grieving father: “and Aaron was silent”. Any attempt to explain the unexplainable is unlikely to bring comfort, and runs the risk of making matters worse.
It is most appropriate that we read parshat Shimini, as we often do, during the week of Yom Hashoah when not only the sons of Aaron, but all of Israel was consumed by fire. Some managed to survive the fire, but all were burnt. And while we must speak of the horrors—for ourselves, for our children and grandchildren and for the world at large—we are silent in trying to offer explanations. To ascribe reasons or justifications for such horror to innocents would border on the blasphemous.
The Torah follows the deaths of Nadav and Avihu with the laws of kashrut. This is no coincidence. The Torah equates kashrut with kedusha, holiness. One can achieve holiness through spiritual pursuits, through cleaving to G-d, and one can attain holiness through elevating of our physical beings. And for many, the latter approach is the better one.
Being in the constant presence of G-d and working in the Temple offers much potential for growth, but also great danger. Coming close to G-d without being fully prepared can be deadly.
In Rabbinic literature, this is best exemplified by the story of the four Sages who entered Pardes, seeking to understand the mystery of the Divine. Of the four, only Rabbi Aviva emerged unscathed, as he alone “nichnas beshalom, entered in peace.” We might say that he entered complete, or prepared.
The effects of this sudden rush to spiritual heights helps to explain the frequent phenomenon in which many of those who become (more) observant “overnight” soon revert back to their old ways, alienating themselves even further from the religious framework than previously.
For most holiness is best achieved in our day-to-day activities, where G-d's impact is felt in the most natural of ways, almost subconsciously. Maimonides, in his Sefer Kedusha (The Book of Holiness), includes only three sections: the laws of forbidden sexual relations, the laws of forbidden foods and the laws of slaughtering animals.
Twice in a matter of three verses, the Torah tells us “and a fire went out from before G-d and consumed”. The first of these described the sacrifices brought as the miskhan was dedicated: “and the people saw, and their raised their voices in praise “ (9:24). The second consumed Nadav and Avihu (10:2).
We must ensure that our religious strivings are balanced and appropriate for our background, context and personality. For some, that is seeking the presence of G-d in the most holy of places. For most, that is in our day-to-day activities, where our commitment to G-d s command is part of our natural existence.