Too much isolation set Nadav and Avihu over the edge.
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We tend to think of solitary confinement as an awful thing. Yet, at times, many of us have chosen to detach ourselves in order to give our full attention to an important task. Our other responsibilities and connections temporarily fall away as we push single-mindedly toward accomplishing our goal. For this type of endeavor, the intensity of focused time is often useful, even necessary. However, dangers abound. We may forget our connections and our broader commitments. We may slip away from society.
The Torah prescribes isolation at the end of Parashat Tzav. As the long-awaited consecration of the Tabernacle draws near, God dictates the final instructions for Aaron and his sons:
"You shall not go outside the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days, until the day that your period of ordination is completed…You shall remain at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting day and night for seven days, keeping God's charge--that you may not die--for so I have been commanded. And Aaron and his sons did all the things that God had commanded through Moses."
The day job of the priests becomes an all-encompassing 24-hour affair, and Aaron and his sons begin a week of singular attention to their roles in the dedication of the Tabernacle. It is not surprising that this task demands complete focus--the Tabernacle is thus far uncharted territory and the stakes are high. The priests cannot afford any distractions.
"That You May Not Die"
Despite the separation God commands, we are confronted by a striking irony. God clearly specifies the benefit of the imposed isolation in the Tabernacle for seven days--"that you may not die." Aaron and his sons faithfully adhere to the prescribed isolation.
However, just over a chapter later--at the pinnacle of the consecration--two of Aaron's four sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer a "strange fire," one that they were not commanded to offer. Their punishment for this transgression is death, and they are consumed by Divine flame. The echo of the verses prescribing isolation rings in our ears as we read of their death. Nahmanides relates to this echo in his commentary on these verses:
"In every other place it says, 'As God commanded through Moses,' but here, because they added to the commandment it did not describe their actions using this language, because they did not do 'as God had commanded Moses.' Rather, they did 'all the things God commanded' and added on to them, as it was written, 'alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them.'"