Provided by Hillel’s Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, which creates educational resources for Jewish organizations on college campuses.
"Sons of High Priest Commit Minor Infraction. Internally Burn to Death: External Bodies Left Untouched." It reads like a headline for the National Enquirer. Even for the Torah the deaths of Aaron‘s sons Nadav and Avihu in this week’s parasha, Shemini, are sensational.
Their crime: they decide to make an incense offering to God at an inappropriate time, presenting "alien fire" to God. Their punishment: God sends flames up their noses and burns them to death. God explains his actions by saying ambiguously, "I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me, thus I will be honored before the entire people." Aaron remains silent. Their cousins remove their tunics and their bodies, untouched by the flames; Aaron and his sons are forbidden to mourn.
On a literal level these deaths are hard to explain. These are not common men attempting to destroy the hierarchy of the priesthood; these are Aaron’s sons. They are actually fulfilling one of their duties, the daily offering of incense. Their deaths are violent and painful, and God seems to say that through this violence he has been honored. If this is the case, sanctification from God is a dangerous thing.
God is Always Just
In Judaism, God is both merciful and wrathful, but always just. Accordingly sages throughout the ages have tried to rationalize these seemingly empty deaths. The sin was bringing "alien fire" before God. Midrash [commentary] claims that this offering came as the last in a series of selfish acts. The pride involved in the act made the offering alien. There is another suggestion that perhaps the brothers were intoxicated, making the offering an abomination to God, and leading into the next section of the portion that forbids the drinking of alcohol before entering the Tabernacle.
Of all the inconsistencies in the portion, the greatest is the preservation of the brothers’ bodies. After their strange demise, the parasha relates how the cousins of Nadav and Avihu "carried them by their tunics to the outside of the camp." The fire did not burn their clothing or, as Midrash claims, their bodies.
Oftentimes what does not make sense on a literal level does make sense on a metaphorical level. This part of the Torah portion leads to a more metaphorical interpretation. Fire is a universal symbol for passion. Fire appears in two contexts in this story: first as the fire the brothers send up to God and second as the fire that consumes them on the inside.
The passion that burns inside of these two men is a divine one, centered on God. Divine passion both fills them and kills them. They first, however, offer their own fire up to God. This fire is "alien," or alienating. The two brothers separate themselves from the rest of the people and concentrate their passions on God. The brothers cultivate private passion for God, one that eventually consumes them.
Looking to the context of the whole Torah portion, in Shemini God establishes precedent for the Israelites. The Tabernacle is set up, the rules for priests explained and the laws of Kashrut delineated. Priests and sacrifices served an important communal purpose for the Israelites. Through sacrifice the Israelites atoned for both individual and societal sins, assuring the smooth function of the society.
There is no room in such a system for priests consumed with a private passion for God. The priestly role cannot be separated from the people. God’s ambiguous comment explains this, and makes Nadav and Avihu negative examples of priestly behavior. God says "I will be sanctified through those who are nearest me, thus I will be honored before the entire people."
Those nearest to God, the priests, must sanctify God only in the communal context. They cannot alienate themselves and offer God a passion that separates them from the community. Priests must function as spiritual intermediaries, and through this action God will have honor They must teach the Israelites to connect to their God and to their heritage, and in doing so they unite the entire community and glorify God.
Nadav and Avihu failed by removing themselves from the important community capacity as teachers and role models. The Jewish people still need leaders to connect the past with the present and to serve as positive examples of behavior.