Acting Normally

It is written, “The L-RD spoke to Moses after the death Aaron’s two sons, when they came near the L-RD and died” (Leviticus 16:1).

The Ohr HaChaim asks why the verse states, “the L-RD spoke” without mentioning what He said. He also asks why the verse states “and died,” since it already says “after the death.”

We may explain this in light of a remark by our Sages on the verse, “By which he shall live” (Leviticus 18:5), namely: “He shall live by them [the mitzvot], but he shall not die because of them” (Yoma 85b). The Sages also say, “The Torah’s words are firmly held by one who kills himself for it” (Berachot 63b). How can a person abide by both of these teachings? When one separates himself from the pleasures of this world and only eats what is strictly necessary in order to live, it is considered as if he has killed himself for the Torah. In fact the Zohar states, “The Torah endures only with one who kills himself for it” (Zohar II:158b). Now death always denotes poverty, for the poor are considered to be like the dead, and the Midrash teaches: “The Torah is not found with one who seeks pleasure and honor in this world, but with one who kills himself for it, as it is written: ‘This is the Torah: A man who dies in a tent’ [Numbers 19:14]” (Yilamdeinu 76b).

However Nadav and Avihu did not do this. They truly killed themselves for the Torah and sanctity, to the point of being ready to die in order to draw closer to the holy Shechinah. They did not get married for this very reason (Vayikra Rabba 20:9), as well as to be close to the Shechinah at all times. Hence the verse twice mentions that they died, in order to teach us that they killed themselves to draw closer to the Shechinah. The verse states, “When they came near the L-RD and died,” but what caused their death? It was the fact that they drew too close to Hashem. The Holy One, blessed be He, said: If you want to draw close to Me, you do not have the right to annul even the smallest part of the Torah, even for a limited time. Do not say that these mitzvot will turn you away from serving Me, or that these mitzvot are empty, for have I given the mitzvot to angels? I gave the Torah and mitzvot only to man, as the Sages have taught: “The Torah was not given to the ministering angels” (Berachot 25b). When you observe Torah and mitzvot, and when you sanctify your material deeds, you will draw closer to the Shechinah and surpass the level of angels. However if you try to resemble the angels, then as surely as you live, I will take your souls! Furthermore, since you plan on killing yourselves for sanctity and you are not acting normally, you are responsible for your deaths, for I placed man in the world so he could live, not die. Just as it is forbidden to physically injure the body (Bava Kama 91b), how much more is it forbidden to kill the body! However by acting normally, and by studying Torah and practicing mitzvot, you can draw closer to the Shechinah. Yet I have not approved of the way you are acting.

This is why the verse states, “The L-RD spoke to Moses after the death.” It teaches us that this is precisely what Hashem said here, neither more nor less. What did He say? He said that the Children of Israel should not live austere lives like Nadav and Avihu, who cut themselves off from a normal life and believed that they were angels. It is only by observing the Torah and mitzvot that a person attains holiness, and yet they cut themselves off from the life of this world. We find something similar in the book Arvei Nachal (Parsha Va’etchanan), which states that the philosophers who came before the giving of the Torah believed that they could improve their future and ensure the survival of the soul by fleeing into the desert, by nourishing themselves with herbs and doing similar things. They believed that it was impossible to improve otherwise, and they perished in their foolishness. The Torah teaches us that the path which is pleasing to Hashem is to fulfill concrete mitzvot that pertain to this world, as our Sages have said: “Combine the study of [Torah] with a worldly occupation” (Berachot 35b). A person may ask, “Why did Holy One, blessed be He, not say this before Nadav and Avihu entered the Holy of Holies, where they died?” The answer is that they had already feasted their eyes upon the Shechinah at the giving of the Torah, and they were therefore liable for death. As our Sages have taught, “Nadav and Avihu uncovered their heads and allowed their eyes to feast on the Shechinah, as it says: ‘He did not stretch out His hand against the nobles of the Children of Israel. They saw G-d, and they ate and drank’ [Exodus 24:11]” (Shemot Rabba 45:5). G-d did not want to disrupt the joy of the Children of Israel, which is why He waited until the eighth day of the inauguration, as the Midrash states: “For this the elders, as well as Nadav and Avihu, deserved to be instantly burned. Yet since the day of the giving of the Torah was precious to G-d, He did not wish to harm them on that day…. Yet at a later date, He collected the debt from them” (Bamidbar Rabba 15:24). Why had they feasted their eyes upon the Shechinah? It is because they thought they could approach the Shechinah all at once, and therefore they were punished.

We can now understand a statement found in the Midrash on this parsha: “After the death Aaron’s two sons. Rabbi Shimon opened his discourse with the text, ‘All things come alike to all. The same fate awaits the righteous and the wicked’ [Ecclesiastes 9:2]” (Vayikra Rabba 20:1). What does this have to do with Nadav and Avihu? We may explain according to what we have said: The evildoer who rejects the yoke of the Torah is liable to death, and the tzaddik who truly kills himself in order to draw closer to the Shechinah, following the ways of Nadav and Avihu, is also liable to death. We must all choose the middle path, sanctifying ourselves in what is permitted.


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