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The Tragic Deaths of Nadav & Avihu in Parshat Shemini

א וַיִּקְח֣וּ בְנֵי־אַֽ֠הֲרֹ֠ן נָדָ֨ב וַֽאֲבִיה֜וּא אִ֣ישׁ מַחְתָּת֗וֹ וַיִּתְּנ֤וּ בָהֵן֙ אֵ֔שׁ וַיָּשִׂ֥ימוּ עָלֶ֖יהָ קְטֹ֑רֶת וַיַּקְרִ֜יבוּ לִפְנֵ֤יה' אֵ֣שׁ זָרָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֧ר לֹ֦א צִוָּ֖ה אֹתָֽם: ב וַתֵּ֥צֵא אֵ֛שׁ מִלִּפְנֵ֥י ה' וַתֹּ֣אכַל אוֹתָ֑ם וַיָּמֻ֖תוּ לִפְנֵ֥י ה':

And Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his pan, put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and they brought before the Lord foreign fire, which He had not commanded them. And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. (Vayikra 10:1-2)

In Parshat Shemini, we learn about the deaths of Aharon’s two oldest son’s Nadav and Avihu. On the day that the Mishkan was to be inaugurated, the two brothers brought an incense offering in the Mishkan, and while doing so, they brought their own fire from outside the Mishkan to burn the incense. Yet, in the previous verse, we read that a heavenly fire came down to burn the sacrifices, and all fires to be used for sacrifices in Mishkan were to be of this heavenly origin. On the very first day of the Mishkan, Nadav, and Avihu violated these rules.

Rashi explains that Nadav and Avihu entered the Mishkan after having drunk alcohol. His proof is that right after their deaths (in pasuk 9), God warns all the Kohanim not to enter the Mishkan, and later the Bet HaMikdash after drinking alcohol.

It’s interesting to note, that they are not punished for drinking alcohol, and never in the Torah are we told not to drink alcohol. However, limits are put on the consumption of alcohol. The Mishkan is not a place for someone who has consumed alcohol. We see this concept at the beginning of Sefer Shmuel when Eli HaKohen is concerned that Chana, the future mother of Shmuel, had been drinking when she entered the Mishkan to pray. Of course, she had not been drinking, but Eli had reasons for his suspicions, and acted on them.

In Judaism, there is a time and place for alcohol. Wine was poured on the Mizbeach for many of the sacrifices. We sanctify and drink wine at the kiddush of every Shabbat and Chag. Furthermore, the Gemara in Masechet Pesachim (109a) in its discussion of being joyous on Pesach, states:

ועכשיו שאין בית המקדש קיים, אין שמחה אלא ביין

And now that the Temple is not standing one can fulfill the mitzvah of rejoicing on a Festival only by drinking wine

So that we see that there is nothing wrong with the consumption of alcohol, as long as it is kept in check.

But Nadav and Avihu are still regarded as righteous. They may have violated God’s commandments, but they did so with good intentions. The alcohol they drank was in celebration of the joyous day, the inauguration of the Mishkan. And the foreign fire that they brought into the Mishkan was done out of enthusiasm for the Mishkan, and their desire to offer up an incense offering to God. Nonetheless, they were punished harshly by God.

וַֽאֲחֵיכֶם֙ כָּל־בֵּ֣ית יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל יִבְכּוּ֙ אֶת־הַשְּׂרֵפָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֖ר שָׂרַ֥ף ה'

But your brothers, the entire house of Israel, shall bewail the conflagration that the Lord has burned. (Vaykira 10:6)

Rashi explains that this verse means that when a Torah Scholar dies, all of Israel must mourn him. Clearly, Nadav and Avihu were considered Torah Scholars, and thus righteous, despite their ultimate sins.

The righteous are often punished more harshly for their sins than the general population. And Nadav and Avihu were no exceptions.

שבת שלום!



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