In this week’s parsha, Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu enter the Tent of Meeting and “offered before [HaShem] an alien fire” (Vayikra 10:1). In response, HaShem consumes them in a heavenly fire. Why?
The rabbis give several explanations, including the suggestion that Aaron’s sons were drunk. Indeed, HaShem next communication to Aaron is the prohibition of drinking wine before entering the Tent of Meeting (Vay. 10:8). However, the plain meaning of the text is that God punishes Nadab and Abihu because their ritual act was not one that “[HaShem] had enjoined upon them” (Vay. 10:1). Aaron’s sons’ blunder was ritual - not behavioural. Furthermore, even if their sin was drunkenness, surely death-by-fire is too draconian a punishment for the God of compassion?
Two further observations might better explain our text (although I remain sceptical as to the “justice of it all”).
Like Uncle, Like Son
Linguistically, HaShem’s justification for consuming Aaron’s sons by fire – “Through those near to Me [ie. the priests] I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people (Vay. 10:3)” – is strongly reminiscent of HaShem’s (later) justification in Bamidbar for prohibiting Moses entry into Israel after he struck the rock: “because you [Moses] did not trust Me enough to affirm My holiness in the sight of the Israelite people” (Bam. 20:12). Before striking the rock, Moses chastises the Israelites for complaining about water, exclaiming that “we [Moses and Aaron] shall get water for you out this rock” (Bam. 20:10). Moses’ “sin” was to attribute the miracle of extracting water from the rock to his own action, rather than HaShem’s; in so doing, he failed to “affirm [Hashem’s] holiness” before Israel. Similarly, Nadab and Abihu usurped HaShem’s role as sovereign Legislator by bringing an offering not required by HaShem; in so doing, they risked undermining HaShem’s holiness “before all the people”.
A Universal Transgression
Rav J. Samuels (of this parish) recently explained that the Temple (and so the Tabernacle) functioned as a (symbolic? actual?) replica of the universe. Accordingly, by transgressing HaShem’s cultic commandments, Nadab and Abihu’s transgression in the ritual sphere equated to a transgression of HaShem’s universal order. Understood thus, their sin was a grave blunder indeed.
Still, was justice done?