With the completion of the Mishkan, there was much excitement and anticipation in the Israelite camp. On the day the Mishkan was to become operational, Moshe assured Aharon that the Glory of God would be revealed:
God will reveal Himself to you today.’… God’s glory will be revealed to you.’…. (Vayikra 9:4,6)
The sign would be unmistakable, and it would confirm that forgiveness had been achieved for the sin of the golden calf, and that the relationship with God had been repaired.
But first, the preliminaries: Aharon is commanded to bring a calf as a sin offering. Presumably, the symbolism of this offering was clear to every member of the nation: The very symbol of their sin would now be used to reach out to God. The people, on the other hand, are commanded to bring a different offering, in atonement for an older sin, to close a dormant account or pay an old debt, as it were: namely, the sale of Yosef. They are instructed to bring a goat, the animal whose blood the brothers used to mislead their father: They had dipped Yosef’s coat of many colors in the blood of a goat and showed it to Yaakov, leaving him to draw the tragic conclusion that his beloved son was dead.
The sale of Yosef and the golden calf were the major sins of the Jewish collective, two enormous stains on the fabric of peoplehood and on the covenant between God and the Israel. On this very special day, the day of the consecration of the Mishkan, the people were promised a chance to expunge these horrible stains. There was hope that by the end of the day all would be set right, all the wounds caused by sin would be healed. Tragically, that is not what transpired: As the day wore on, despite the great promise of that unique moment, more sorrow and more disappointment were added to their burden of guilt.
The day began well: The offerings commanded by God were brought to the Altar. With great precision, Aharon, aided by his sons, performed the tasks God had commanded. (9:9, 12, 13,18-20) Then, Aharon blessed the people.
Aharon lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them. He then descended from [the Altar where he] had prepared the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the peace offerings. (9:22)
As readers, we might think that all is well, that everything is in order – but there is something missing. Moshe had assured them that God would respond to these offerings, to the service as a whole, by revealing His Glory. Thus, the nation stood in breathless anticipation of some sort of revelation, some unmistakable sign that they had been forgiven. Instead, there was only silence.
Moshe, acutely aware of the awkward silence, of the lack of response, sprang into action:
Moshe and Aharon went into the Communion Tent, and when they came out, they blessed the people. God’s Glory was then revealed to all the people. Fire came forth from before God and consumed the burnt offering and the choice parts on the Altar. When the people saw this, they raised their voices in praise and threw themselves on their faces. (9:23,24)
The service performed by Aharon and his sons had failed to generate the anticipated response; only when they were joined by Moshe did the Glory of God, the unmistakable sign of God’s proximity and intimacy of which Moshe had spoken, appear.
The people do not seem aware of anything untoward; when the fire descends from the heavens and consumes the offerings that had been laid on the Altar, they break into spontaneous song. Their world, they believe, has been fixed; they are aware that they have witnessed a miracle, that they have “turned a corner,” and believe that the sins that had hovered over them were now a thing of the past.
Two sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, did not share the peoples’ feeling of elation. They were not at peace; something gnawed at them. They, like Moshe, knew that something was amiss. They had been involved in the service from the outset, and could not help but notice the lack of Divine response, the deafening silence that was broken only when Moshe stepped in. They sensed their father’s humiliation, felt the weight of sin bearing down upon them, and resolved to “push the envelope,” to grab the bull by the horns by bringing an offering of their own design. Intuiting that what is needed is an offering that involves the sense of smell, the most ethereal and uncorrupted of the human senses, they enter the inner sanctum with incense, and set it alight with a fire of their own. And, lo and behold, the response they sought comes immediately: The heavenly fire, the physical manifestation of God’s Glory that previously had descended only when Moshe intervened, burst forth. This time, though, the fire did not consume the offering; it consumed those who had brought the offering – Nadav and Avihu. They had succeeded in bringing about a direct response from God, but the response was too intense. Their experiment was a success, but it cost them their lives.
From that day on, a major element of the Yom Kippur service reflects the sacrifice of Nadav and Avihu: On the Day of Atonement, as we recall our individual and communal sins as well as the sins committed by our forefathers, we also recall the unmistakable sign of forgiveness and intimacy witnessed by the people on the day the Mishkan was consecrated: The Glory of God, the heavenly fire, descending upon the Mishkan. Each year, a descendant of Aharon is commanded to bring an offering of incense into the Holy of Holies, beseeching God through the use of our sense of smell to forgive us, once again, as he forgave Aharon and the Israelites for the golden calf (16:12-13). Apparently, Nadav and Avihu’s intuition was far more accurate than we might have guessed: The world still needs a fixing, and the first step towards perfecting the world begins from a place of purity and innocence, when we use the sense of smell to reach out to God.
For a more in-depth analysis see: http://arikahn.blogspot.co.il/2016/03/essays-and-audio-parshat-shmini.html