The Sin of Nadav and Avihu and their Infinite Greatness
The Sages have spoken in several places concerning the nature of Nadav and Avihu’s sin, which the Torah describes by stating, “The sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire pan … and they brought before the L-RD an alien fire that He had not commanded them” (Leviticus 10:1). Among other things, the Sages have said that they walked behind Moses and Aaron and said, “When will these old men die so that you and I will lead the generation?” (Sanhedrin 52a). Furthermore, they were not married (Zohar III:39a) and they entered the Sanctuary in a state of drunkenness, which was the cause of their punishment.
All this is very surprising. How could Nadav and Avihu manage to feel greater than Moses and Aaron, to the point that they came to teach a Halachah before their teachers (Eruvin 63a)? Did they not understand that they deserved to be punished for this, just as if they had not performed the Eternal’s mitzvot?
This can be entirely explained. Nadav and Avihu thought that Moses had attained his greatness because he had climbed to the heavens with G-d’s permission, and it was there that he reached the fullness of his holiness. His brother Aaron had followed the same process in going up with Moses, as it is written, “Then you shall ascend, and Aaron with you” (Exodus 19:24). But they, Nadav and Avihu, had reached the level that they were at through their own efforts, without climbing to heaven and without any external help. Consequently, they felt greater than Moses and Aaron, and this is what made them believe that they were worthy of leading the Children of Israel. However, they were punished for what they did, for they should have known that Heaven doesn’t bestow greatness to someone without reason, and that they were absolutely forbidden to question how Moses and Aaron governed the people. This blindness brought death upon them.
In reality, Moses and Aaron were greater than Nadav and Avihu. Actually, Moses never favorably compared himself with anyone, for he regarded everyone well. For example, when his son Gershom ran towards him to say, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp” (Numbers 11:27) and his servant Joshua added, “My lord Moses, incarcerate them!” (v.28), Moses responded, “Are you being zealous for my sake? Would that the entire people of the L-RD could be prophets, if the L-RD would but place His spirit upon them!” (v.29). Neither did his brother Aaron believe himself to be at an exceptional level. He considered himself as the least among the Children of Israel, to the point of stating, “What are we…?” (Exodus 17:7). They didn’t attribute any importance to themselves, which is why G-d didn’t accept Nadav and Avihu’s claim. He preferred to name as a leader someone that had no pretensions and was humble and modest with the people. From this we should learn the proper way to conduct ourselves, as well as the appropriate manner in which to lead the Children of Israel: We should not favorably compare ourselves to anybody, and we should not to look down on anyone. On the contrary, a leader should constantly be under the impression that he is dragging along impure insects with him, as our Sages have said, “A person is not named as a leader until he moves a box filled with impure insects” (Yoma 22b). In other words, he has something for which to be criticized, and this will prevent him from becoming boastful. As for the people, they have nothing for which to be blamed, permitting their leader to judge them with complete fairness.
Now Nadav and Avihu felt superior to Moses and Aaron, whereas the opposite was not true. Quite to the contrary, Moses and Aaron felt great respect for them, as for example when they applied G-d’s words to Nadav and Avihu: “I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me” (Leviticus 10:3). And it is precisely by this that Moses is considered as being great.
For the moment, let us consider what G-d commanded: “The entire House of Israel shall bewail the conflagration that the L-RD ignited” (v.6). Can one even imagine that the Children of Israel would not bewail them, to the point that they had to be ordered to do so? In addition, it seems from this verse that G-d told the Children of Israel to hold a funeral service for Nadav and Avihu, which indicates that they otherwise would not have done so. Is this conceivable?
All this, in fact, is completely understandable. Nadav and Avihu wanted to be greater than Moses and Aaron, wishing that they die. They had not married because they thought that they were called to lead the Children of Israel according to the strict measure of justice, not mercy, and finally they entered into the Sanctuary in a state of drunkenness. They behaved strangely. In addition, they favorably compared themselves to Moses and Aaron. None of this pleased the Children of Israel very much, for the people saw with their own eyes that they despised Moses and Aaron, the greatest of their generation. One may therefore logically suppose that they wanted neither to bewail them nor to hold an appropriate funeral service.
This is why G-d, Who, as we know, is a fair judge that probes both heart and mind (see Jeremiah 11:20), ordered the Children of Israel to bewail Nadav and Avihu. G-d knew that Nadav and Avihu had acted only for the love of Heaven, for “Man sees what his eyes behold, but the L-RD sees into the heart” (I Samuel 16:7). He therefore said, “The entire House of Israel shall bewail the conflagration that the L-RD ignited” so that the Children of Israel could at least learn from them how to devote oneself to others when serving G-d. This should not, however, be at the expense of one’s obedience to the great of the generation, for their directives should always be followed.