|The Voice of Torah: Shemini|
|Written by Rabbi Chaim Goldberger|
The tragedy of Nadav and Avihu needs to be explained. How could two acknowledged tzaddikim, at the moment of the singular greatest connection between God and the Jewish people, have committed such a devastating error? And why
was it only Nadav and Avihu who erred and not their brothers Elazar and Itamar?
Furthermore, in the wake of the tragedy, our parsha lays out a new proscription – Kohanim are not allowed to perform the sacred service while intoxicated. By extension, a chacham is not permitted to rule on matters of halacha while intoxicated. From this law, our sages derive another law: Any chacham capable of ruling on matters of Jewish law is obligated to do so. The law is a reasonable and sensible one, but how does it follow from the prohibition of ruling while drunk?
The Mishkan can play one of two possible roles within the Jewish nation. If we have difficulty living with the unbounded Presence of God in our midst, having a Mishkan enables His Presence to be limited to a specific location so that we can endure it and not feel overwhelmed. On the other hand, if we are comfortable with God’s Presence resting without limitation, the Mishkan serves as a locus enabling us to concentrate and channel our affection for God through one central facility.
Which option you choose would logically make the following difference: If you allow God’s unlimited presence in your world, it is only natural that He would welcome your unlimited presence in His. If you allow God only within limits, He will likely restrict you the same.
The Jewish people felt overwhelmed by God’s Presence. This was the reason they begged Moshe to take an intermediary role after receiving two of the Ten Commandments and it was the reason they tumbled into worship of the Golden Calf (eigel hazahav). Given following atonement for the maaseh ha’eigel, it was clear that the order to construct the Mishkan was meant to satisfy a need for an edifice of limitation. And so it was understood that the Jewish people was to have curtailed access within God’s sanctuary, limited to specified ritual regulation.
But the family of Aharon was different. They never wanted the eigel. They were the ones that had to be coerced into having it made! They remained ready to have the Mishkan be a focus of God’s Presence, not a limitation. As such, they figured they had every right to expect unlimited access.
The highest and most unlimited expression of devotion is self-sacrifice. Avraham Avinu did it when he allowed himself to be cast into Nimrod’s fiery furnace. Yitzchak did it at the Akeidah. Sainted kedoshim throughout history have practiced it when faced with trials of faith.
Nadav and Avihu were faced with a moment of fateful decision.
They knew God had not ordered the offering they desired to bring. But they also knew that if the Mishkan were a place of openness and not limitation, anything they brought would be accepted. They decided it was up to them to singlehandedly turn the Mishkan from a place of limitation into a place of expansive spiritual connection – and they were willing to risk their lives in order to do it.
They failed because their calculation was in error, but it was an error only great tzaddikim could have made.
Why did they fail, and why only those two?
Sons of their father, Nadav and Avihu were also sons of their mother Elisheva, and according to the Talmud the majority of sons favor the mother’s brothers. Elisheva’s brother was Nachshon ben Aminadav, who sacrificially strode into the Red Sea causing it to split. Nadav (named for her father Aminadav) and Avihu (literally, “this one is [also like] my father”) were the two b’nei Aharon that took after Elisheva’s side of the family. Thus they were the ones who felt the urge to pursue this ill-fated path of self-sacrifice. Their effort failed because they neglected to recognize the difference between their situation and that of their uncle. Nachshon’s devotion accurately reflected the spirit of the people, thus they merited both his and their deliverance. Nadav and Avihu’s act reflected their own greatness but there was no parallel greatness within the people. Without it, their effort was doomed.
Had they succeeded, all forms of spiritual expression would be holy, and even drunkenness would be an exalted state. Because Nadav and Avihu failed to convert the Mishkan into a place of unlimited spiritual expression, divine worship remained constricted and drunkenness was banned.
By extension, as we’ve said, we are not allowed to issue divine law while intoxicated. Had Nadav and Avihu triumphed, access to divine law would have become available in unlimited supply. Not only would we be able to pronounce God’s law while under the influence – because nothing un-Godly would ever be able to emerge from our mouths with the Shechina resting directly upon us – but we would all be able to render piskei halacha. It is only because we did not merit their success that access to God’s law remains limited. But since access is now so limited, it becomes clear that any chacham who is capable of ruling on halacha is obviously required to do so.