Provided by the Orthodox Union, the central coordinating agency for North American Orthodox congregations.
Who were Nadav and Avihu, and what do their deaths have to do with Yom Kippur?
Furthermore, why were they killed? Is it not the duty of every Jew to strive to come close to God?
Nadav and Avihu died during the sanctification of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). "They offered before the Lord an alien fire, which He had not commanded… and a fire came forth and consumed them."
They were not just killed; they were consumed. Their death can be viewed as sacrificial. Describing their death, the Torah adds two words: They died "before God." God did not distance Himself from them, but reached down and brought them up. "Bikrovai ekodeish, I will be sanctified through those who are close to me," God says of Nadav and Avihu. They were the tzaddikim (righteous people) of their generation and died attempting to find Godliness and spirituality in their own way.
By attempting to experience God in His fullness, they sanctified themselves, but their mere physicality could not endure it.
There Are Boundaries
It is a lesson that we all must learn: it is part of the human condition that there are boundaries to everything, even to religiosity and spirituality. The ecstatic tragedy of Nadav and Avihu teaches us that one can only go so far.
Our world is both physical and spiritual. The ideal of Judaism is to combine the two. Being clothed in human garb, we must recognize that there are limits on how we can achieve holiness and spirituality.
Thus, the story of Nadav and Avihu’s death is real on Yom Kippur, for not only does the Yom Kippur service bring atonement to the people, the death of tzaddikim brings atonement as well.
The tragedies of Jewish history have, unfortunately, introduced a slanted view of kiddush Hashem, sanctification of God’s name. The main mitzvah (commandment), as the Rambam codifies it, is not to die for the sake of God, but to live for the sake of God, to sanctify His Name through our actions. Kiddush Hashem involves doing heroic and wonderful things as a Jew, and to demonstrate collectively as a people that we are the people of God.
Let us appreciate that nearly half our people died al kiddush Hashem (sanctifying God’s name) during the Holocaust. Let us respond by living a life filled with kiddush Hashem to vindicate their sacrifice and make their deaths and our lives meaningful.
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