Posted on March 23, 2011
by Becky Schisler
April 18, 2009/24 Nisan 5769
In this week’s parsha, Parashat Shemini, a very strange event occurs. The parasha begins with Aaron and his sons beginning to fulfill their roles as Kohanim. Moses instructs them in how to go about making a “sin offering” and a “burnt offering” to the Lord on the altar. Aaron, with the help of his sons, is careful to prepare these offerings in the way that is commanded. When he is completed, the “glory of the Lord” appears to all the people of Israel – a fire issues forth from God, consuming the offerings on the altar. Upon seeing this, everyone sings praises and falls on their faces with joy.
Two, however, are perhaps too ecstatic about this divine presence that has come to dwell in the Sanctuary … and this is where the very unexpected thing happens. Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Abihu, put incense into their pans and offer a “strange fire before G-d, which He commanded them not.” Immediately a fire issues forth from the altar, and, just like the burnt offerings before them, they are consumed. Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Abihu, are dead.
This raises a number of questions. The two were just doing as the Lord had asked – certainly they had good intentions. Why did they have to die? Even stranger, after the tragic event, Aaron is totally silent; he hardly reacts. Why did this happen?
There are several explanations. According to the text, the two died because they offered frankincense in the temple – and this had not been specifically asked for by God. But is that really deserving of death?
According to Talmudic sources quoted by Rashi, their offence was aggravated by having done it without first consulting Moses, their teacher, and because they did it after having drunken too much wine. Perhaps their death was a lesson for the Israelites to never enter the Sanctuary or perform sacrifices while in such a state of mind.
According to Rashi following Ex. 29:43, however, the text means that God was actually honored by the strange offering of Nadav and Abihu – and that is why he killed them. Rashi implies that when God uses strict justice with the incredibly righteous, he is feared and honored. Moses later tries to comfort Aaron in saying that “This is what the Lord spoke, [when He said], ‘I will be sanctified through those near to Me, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ “Perhaps the Lord took the lives of Nadav and Abihu not because he was punishing him, but because they were great – greater than their fathers – and how such greatness merits death is entirely beyond our comprehension. This is an explanation that is fitting of Aaron’s silence.
There are other examples in the Torah where God has actually commanded silence as response to startling and even tragic events – this one is no different. While any of these explanations may be correct, there is no denying that the unexpected deaths of these two Kohanim are unexpected and tragic. The response of their father is not emotionless, rather fitting – sometimes, in the face of God’s great, incomprehensible ways, silence is the only appropriate response.