Parshat Shmini - 5759 The Death of Nadav and Avihu
Many ideas have been advanced regarding the tragic death, recorded in this week's Parshah, of Aharon HaKohen's eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu. Their deaths occurred by a fire which emanated from G-d during the till-then joyous celebration of the Inauguration of the "Mishkan," the Tabernacle, which was to be the Abode of the Divine Presence among the People of Israel. A number of them qualify as "Pshat," straightforward meaning, for they fit well into the context of the narrative.
One of these explanations is that, although Nadav and Avihu had to some extent exceeded the boundary of intimacy with G-d, this was basically a punishment for Aharon himself, for his role in the disaster of the "Egel HaZahav," the Golden Calf.
It seems inescapable that whatever his greatness before and after the event, Aharon had committed a terrible sin during those awful moments when unbearable pressure was placed upon him at the foot of Mt. Sinai. This again was despite the fact that he embodied the principle of "oheiv shalom v'rodeph shalom," "loving and pursuing peace," between husbands and wives, and between friends and neighbors who had become estranged. And despite the fact that as "Kohen Gadol," High Priest, each year he secured atonement on Yom Kippur, for the entire People of Israel, during their stay in the desert.
Perhaps he saw that resistance was futile when he witnessed his nephew, Chur, son of Miriam, killed by the mob. But, whatever the mitigating factors, it seems clear that the "Ribbono shel Olam," the Master of the Universe, held Aharon responsible for the making of the "Egel." The text says "ki peraoh Aharon," literally translated as "because Aharon made them wild." But if we look at the Hebrew letters of "peraoh," "Peh," "Resh," "Ayin," "Heh" without the vowels, the word spells Pharaoh, and the meaning might be that in that terrible moment, it was as if Aharon was Pharaoh. For he "accomplished" what Pharaoh tried to do to the Jewish People; namely, to make them indistinguishable from the Egyptians, in their worship of the Calf.
For this sin, Aharon was subject to the penalty of "Karet," to be cut off from Eternity by the death of all his children, if not for the prayers of his brother, Moshe, in his behalf, which reduced the sentence to "only" Nadav and Avihu. And they too might have been saved by the awesome power of Moshe's prayer, were not they themselves subject to the penalty of death, for behaving with excessive familiarity with the Divine Presence after the Giving of the Torah. For the text says, "They gazed upon the L-rd, and they ate and drank," at which point "RASHI," the great commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki says, they incurred the penalty of death, postponed until now.
Leadership of the Jewish People is, and has always been, a very, very difficult proposition, as the fate of the great Aharon Hakohen should, at the very least, make clear. Therefore, let us be patient with and generally supportive of our leaders who have to deal with the internal chaos of Jews continuously at each others' throats over religious issues while the Arabs prowl around the gates of Yerushalayim. Let us not create "fifth and sixth columns" within our nation while our "cousins" and the rest of the world bring maximum pressure against us. If we are good Jews and good people, we'll have good and great leaders, and see the "Yeshuat Hashem," the "salvation of G-d," come to us, as it came to the Jewish People at the edge of the Sea in the path of the advancing Egyptian army, "k'heref ayin," in "the blink of an eye."
Rabbi Pinchas Frankel
Rabbi Frankel is an Educational Coordinator at the OU