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Beit Hamidrash

The Sin of Nadav and Avihu

By: Rav Itamar Eldar

   In Parashat Shemini, we read about one of the most traumatic episodes that passed overIsrael during their sojourn in the wilderness.


            It is the eighth day following the construction of the MishkanGreat festivity is felt in the midst of the camp of Israel: "For today the Lord will appear to you" (Vayikra 9:4). And indeed the glory of God appears before the eyes of the children of Israel, a fire issues forth from heaven and consumes the sacrifices on the altar, and the people shout and fall on their faces before God. Scripture continues the story as follows:

And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon, took each of them his censer, and put fire in it, and put incense on it, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He commanded them not. And a fire went out from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moshe said to Aharon, This is that which the Lord spoke, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come near Me, and before all the people I will be glorified. AndAharon held his peace. And Moshe called Misha'el and Eltzafan, the sons of Uziel, the uncle of Aharon, and said to them, Come near, carry your brethren from before the sanctuary out of the camp. So they went near, and carried them in their coats out of the camp, as Moshe had said. (Vayikra 10:1-5)

            At that spiritually uplifting moment, which was all love and conjunction with God, Nadavand Avihu each took their censer, put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered the fire before God. And at that very moment, that spiritually uplifting experience was shattered into pieces, for a fire went out from before God and burned Nadav and Avihu who died before God.


            Many explanations have been offered regarding the motivation underlying Nadav andAvihu's action, in an effort to explain the crime and its punishment.[1] The great Chassidic thinkers were also among those who dealt with the sin of Nadav and Avihu, and in the context of their discussion, they touched upon a number of complex and loaded issues that arose in the world of Chassidut.


The Limits of Religious Excitement


            When we consider the sin of Nadav and Avihu and its motive, we must take note of a critical point. We can not ignore the fact that, by its very nature, the act of Nadav and Avihu was an act of drawing near to God. Burning incense and offering a fire before God is something positive, and all the more so when we are dealing with priests. From this perspective, a difficult question arises: What fault can there possibly be in drawing near to God, in the inner desire to serve Him?


            In the following passage, R. Nachman of Breslov alludes to one approach to this question:


Through dancing, where he drinks wine that gladdens, which is the source of strength (gevura) in the understanding (bina) which proceeds downward into the feet, that is, where he dances – through that he drives out the externals from there. This is the excitement of dance, and it is "a sacrifice made by fire, sweet savor onto the Lord" (Bamidbar 28:8). But one who dances with the excitement of the yetzer, this is called the sin of Nadav and Avihu, about which it is written: "And they offered strange fire" (Vayikra10:1). Nadav and Avihu are netzach and hodExcitement in holiness is called wine that gladdens, through which the firstborns are sweetened. And a strange fire is called wine that intoxicates, the excitement of the yetzer. There there is, God forbid, room for the externals to take hold, which He did not command. (Likutei Moharan Kama 41)


            We shall not enter into a discussion of the kabbalistic terminology used here by R.Nachman. We shall merely note that in contrast to dancing for the sake of heaven which has the aspect of fire, sweet savor to God, there is also excitement that is "a strange fire," the source of which is the evil yetzerNadav and Avihu were undoubtedly moved by a fire to make an offering before God. But, according to R. Nachman, it was a strange fire, coming from a negative source, the evil yetzer, which underlay their action, and for that reason, that excitement was rejected and consumed by another fire. R. Nachman teaches us that we must not look exclusively at the action, but at its source, its motive, and its catalyst. An act may appear to be an act of holiness, but it is rooted in evil and defilement. This is what God taught us when he rejected the offering ofNadav and Avihu.


            R. Nachman is trying to bridge the gap between what appears as a positive action, an expression of a desire to draw near to God, and the simple understanding that we are dealing here with sin, with a strange fire, with an action that results in punishment.


            An entirely different approach to our difficulty is found in the following words of the SefatEmet:

In the name of my revered grandfather, of blessed memory, on the verse, "which He commanded them not." This teaches that the primary force of every human action is the Divine command. For all of human reason is nullified by this force. Now Nadav and Avihuwere exceedingly righteous men and they acted for the sake of heaven; but the command was missing. We may learn by a kal vahomer argument, a good quality being greater: if so, someone who does the will of the Creator, even if he does not know the reason so that he may do it with the desired intention. This is the force of God's command. As it is stated: "Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us." The force of this command is more important than anything else. One must understand what is written that they entered [the sanctuary] after having drunk wine. For the comprehension of reasons is called wine, the wine of Torah. Nevertheless, it must only be by royal order. As for their comprehension, they did even what God had not commanded, so that they are called drinkers of wine who entered [the sanctuary]. According to this, we can explain "Your love is better than wine" (Shir ha-Shirim 1:2). That is to say, the conjunction and nearness to God who has drawn us near to Him are better than any apprehension of human reason. (Sefat EmetShemini 5636)

            The Sefat Emet makes an important statement: "Nadav and Avihu were exceedingly righteous men and they acted for the sake of heaven." On the eighth day, Nadav and Avihuburned incense before God out of a desire to draw near to and conjoin with Him; whatever they did was for the sake of heaven. No pride, no yetzer, no lust, as suggested by R. Nachman – only pure and sincere desire to draw near to God.


            There was, however, one fundamental problem: "The command was missing." With these words, the Sefat Emet rests the entire weight of religious activity on commandment: "The force of this command is more important than anything else." This is true in two directions. It denies the validity of an action that is not based on God's command, even if its intention is good and by nature it involves drawing near to God. It also heightens the value of an action that is in fact based on a Divine imperative, even when the reason is not understood: "Someone who does the will of the Creator, even if he does not know the reason so that he may do it with the desired intention. This is the force of God's command. As it is stated: 'Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us.'" The Sefat Emet notes that the essence of a blessing recited prior to the performance of a mitzva does not focus on the content of the mitzva over which the blessing is being recited, but on the very fact that it is a mitzva – a Divine command.


            According to the Sefat Emet, Nadav and Avihu represent the position that gives preference to content over framework, to meaning over obedience, and their punishment teaches us to restore the command and the acceptance of His yoke to the center of our religious activity.[2] Religious excitement is important and meaningful, but it does not substitute for acceptance of the yoke of the kingdom of heaven, which involves fear, acceptance, and response to God's commands.


            R. Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin restricts the excitement of Nadav and Avihu in a different manner, and thus he sets different limits to religious excitement. He writes as follows:

But it is known to one who goes in and out that this matter must be in accordance with a person's level. He must enter gradually, rising from one level to the next. But if he achieves comprehension above his level, his soul may depart, as when (Chagiga 14b) Ben Azai gazed and died because of his comprehension. And so too the deaths of Nadavand Avihu were in this manner. And at the giving of the Torah as well, after one commandment their souls departed (Shabbat 88b), for they were not all prepared for the level of prophecy. But He sent down dew of resurrection, that is, an abundance of new vitality, so that they became new creatures. The same is true with any comprehension that is above one's level. And a repentant sinner who achieves ultimate perfection for a single moment, when he acquires his [share in the] world[-to-come] in a moment, his soul departs as in the case of Elazar b. Dordaya in Avoda Zara 17a. (Resisei Laila, 58)

            In this passage, R. Tzadok tries to moderate excitement in a different way. He does not relate to the idea of command, but rather to the idea of level. R. Tzadok teaches us the important principle of gradation. Excitement involves an abundance of light, and a person must have the vessels that will allow him to receive and contain the light. Comprehension in excess of the appropriate measure ends in death, for the body, i.e., the vessel, cannot bear the great light to which the person has become exposed. This is what happened to Israel during the giving of the Torah, when they merited sights and sounds that were above their capabilities, and, their souls departed from them. Were it not for the dew of life that God restored to Israel, they would all have been buried at the foot of the mountain because of the intensity of the experience and their inability to contain it. This is also what happens, argues R. Tzadok, to a repentant sinner who in a single moment merits supernal apprehension. And this is what happened to Nadav and Avihuwhen they offered the incense. In and of itself the act was pure, and it even reflected the highest level to which the sons of Aharon could have aspired,[3] but it came before its time, and without the preparation and processes that are necessary in order to reach that level.


            R. Tzadok teaches us that while religious excitement may be lofty, it must maintain a constant relationship to a person's abilities and level. Excessive excitement is the aspect of "forcing the end," leading to "false messianism," which results in the person's destruction.


            Another approach to the limiting of religious excitement is found in the words of R. Natan, disciple of R. Nachman of Breslov:

Therefore the pious men of old would wait an hour before praying, etc. For at first they would conjoin themselves to the Infinite light with wonderful conjunction, this being the aspect of the hour during which they would wait in silence before prayer. Later, when they saw that they could go up, God forbid, beyond the measure, they restricted the Infinite light in their heart and engaged in the speech of prayer. This is the essence of the tikkunof tzimtzum, for through this, "Who is this coming out of the wilderness" (Shir ha-Shirim3:6), having the aspect of service of the heart/prayer, which is the primary revelation of His kingdom, as is explained there. Therefore, later they would wait an hour after prayer, in order to raise the kingdom, the aspect of the lower house, together with the upper house, having the aspect of "Who is this coming out of the wilderness [midbar]," the speech [dibbur] of prayer. For after the revelation of His kingdom, then there is elevation also of the upper house, as mentioned above. This is the aspect of "My heart was hot within me; while I was musing the fire burned" (Tehilim 39:4), to the point that it was almost burned from the abundance of excitement, this being the aspect of the flaw ofNadav and Avihu when they drew near to God. And the tikkun, "Then I spoke with my tongue" (ibid.), the aspect of the speech of prayer and songs and praises, as mentioned above. (Likutei HalakhotHilkhot Mincha 7:18) 

            R. Natan also relates to the danger of excessive excitement. But whereas for R. Tzadok, the danger lies in the gap between the comprehension and the level of the person wishing to reach it, for R. Natan, the danger lies in the very comprehension. R. Natan teaches us that at the peak and highest pinnacle of spiritual apprehension, there awaits for us Infinite light, the conjunction with which results in the removal of the body and it burning in the eternal fire of the Infinite light. Between the lines, R. Natan tells us that life in this world necessitates that we give up on the totality of excitement: "This is the aspect of 'My heart was hot within me; while I wasmusing the fire burned' (Tehilim 39:4), to the point that it was almost burned from the abundance of excitement."


            R. Natan asserts that this tension expresses itself in prayer. On the one hand, Chassidic prayer is understood as an ecstatic act, through which a person conjoins with the Infinite and theShekhina speaks from his throat. On the other hand, prayer is marked by order in the form of set times, a set text, and routine acts that constantly repeat themselves. R. Natan teaches us that this dichotomy between spontaneous outburst that is unbounded and unrestrained, on the one hand, and clearly defined, written words, on the other, is the tension between conjunction with God and life in this world. This is the going back and forth that a person experiences in his world. One moment, he wishes to conjoin with the Infinite and cast off the life that envelops him in this world – "Draw me, we will run after You; the King has brought me into His chambers" (Shir ha-Shirim 1:4), and the next moment, he returns to the world and to his needs – requesting sustenance, healing and redemption. R. Nachman himself writes as follows:

This is "But no man knows" (Devarim  34:6) – even Moshe did not know, as our Rabbis, of blessed memory, have said (Sota 14b) that he was effaced to the Infinite. All this was upon his death, but surely during his lifetime as well, he cast off his materiality, and conjoined himself with the Infinite light. But this casting off was the aspect of "And the living creatures ran and returned" (Yechezkel 1:14). For the Holy One, blessed be He, desires our service, as it is stated, "And you desire the praise of clods of earth, formed of matter." And for this, one must remain like that only until the time that the Holy One, blessed be Him, comes Himself and takes his soul. That which we see that a person is sometimes excited in his prayer and says several words with great excitement, this is through God's compassion for him, for the Infinite light is opened and illuminates for him. When a person sees this sparkling - even if he does not see it, his heavenly fortune sees it (Megila 3a) - his soul is immediately excited to great conjunction, to conjoin himself to the Infinite light. And in accordance with the measure of this revelation of the Infinite, in accordance with the number of words that were opened and sparkled, all these words he says with great conjunction, with the devotion of his soul, and with the nullification of his powers. And when he effaces himself to the Infinite, this is the aspect of "But no man knew," for even he himself does not know of himself. But this aspect must be "running and returning," so that his essence will endure. (Likutei Moharan Kama 4)

            God's desire for our service obliges us to "return" from our "running" and from our excitement, and not to cast off our materialism. R. Nachman teaches us that the quest for total conjunction that negates the value of this world does not correspond with God's will. We are, therefore, obligated, and even forced to accept the boundaries of this world, and return from total conjunction – obviously, one who has achieved it.[4]


            Nadav and Avihu's sin according to this – explains R. Nachman's disciple – was their being unprepared to return. Their drawing near to God and their burning of the incense is understood by R. Natan as a desire to conjoin with the Infinite and give up the limitations of the body and of this world.


            According to this, Nadav and Avihu were not "punished" with death. Their death resulted from their drawing near to God, and it may even be possible to say that their desire for death was realized. Their sin, asserts R. Natan, was their death and their giving up on the service of God in this world. This is the flaw of those who seek God with total excitement, whose entire desire is to give up their lives and cast from themselves the outer trappings of this world – the flaw of Nadavand Avihu. This, argues R. Natan, is the flaw of one who communes with God in his prayers, leaving behind the onerous and limiting text that relates to this world and all its problems. Who wants healing? Who wants sustenance? Who wants an ingathering of the exiles? The sole desire of such a person is that "his soul should be immediately excited to great conjunction, to conjoin himself to the Infinite light." R. Nachman and his disciple teach us that this is "the flaw of Nadavand Avihu."


            The Divine command, the recognition of gradation, the readiness to return to this world and its limitations – are three possibilities regarding the great deficiency in Nadav and Avihu'sconduct that ultimately led to their deaths. These are the deficiencies that a person who is excited in his service of God must be aware of and relate to, lest the same thing happen to him as happened to Nadav and Avihu, who despite their lofty intention, did not fulfill God's will.


Sin for its Own Sake


            R. Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica, author of the "Mei ha-Shilo'ach," went off in a totally different direction:

"And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon, took each of them his censer… And a fire went out from the Lord, and devoured them." Now all the sins of Israel recorded in the Torah come to teach Torah to all of Israel, as it is stated in the Gemara (Avoda Zara 4b): "Israel only made the [golden] calf to provide an excuse for repentant sinners, etc. David was not fit for that act, etc. So that if an individual sins, we say to him, 'Turn to the individual,' and if the community sins, we say to him, 'Turn to the community.' And similarly the incident of Nadav and Avihu recorded in the Torah comes to teach the individual fear. For they too were clean [of sin] through their mother, for she was the sister of Nachshon son of Aminadav, from whom emerged the kingdom of the house of David. And a king may breach a fence, since he is confident that his will is the will of God, blessed be He. They could, therefore, rely on their will, which was surely from God, blessed be He. But God, blessed be He, showed that a person should do nothing without [first] clarifying it seven times. (Mei ha-Shilo'ach, pt. 1, Shemini)

            With these words, the Mei ha-Shilo'ach opens a narrow but problematic door, one that is dangerous and controversial, regarding the relationship between God's will and His mitzvot. The very distinction between these two concepts stirred up objections on the part of many of our greatest thinkers.


            Thus far we have confronted the will of Nadav and Avihu with the will of God. It was their desire to draw close, to conjoin, to perform a religious act, but the fact that we are dealing with a strange fire that God did not command teaches us that this was the will of Nadav and Avihu, but not the will of God. Now R. Mordechai Yosef Leiner wants to confront not the will of Nadav andAvihu with the will of God, but rather the will of God with His own mitzvot and His own Torah. Is such a distinction possible? Is it possible for God's will to be in conflict with His mitzvot?


            It would seem that, according to R. Mordechai Leiner, such a possibility fundamentally exists. Elsewhere, he writes as follows:

This is what is stated: "Efrayim shall not envy Yehuda, and Yehuda shall not vex Efrayim" (Yeshaya 11:13). For in truth these two tribes are constantly opposed to each other. For the life that the Holy One, blessed be He, gave the tribe of Efrayim was to understand Him at all times in every act according to the law and the Halakha without deviating from it. Therefore, when Scripture admonishes Israel not to veer from the goal of the Torah, it says: "Lest he break out like fire in the house of Yosef" (Amos 5:6). That is, that you will see that there is opposition to your acts. And the root of the life of Yehuda is to look at all times to God, blessed be He, in every act, even though he sees how the law is inclined, nevertheless he looks to God, blessed be He, that He should show him the depth of the truth of the matter. For it can be that even though the law is true according to the claims of the litigants, it is nevertheless not true, for one may have put forward a false claim, as we find… and so too we find in all matters. This is the root of the life of Yehuda to look to God in every matter and not to act in accordance with "a commandment performed by men by rote" (Yeshaya 29:13). Even though yesterday he performed a similar act, nevertheless today he does not want to rely on himself, but rather that God, blessed be He, should illuminate His will to him anew. This sometimes obliges that he perform an action against Halakha, for "it is time to act on behalf of the Lord, etc." Therefore these two tribes oppose each other, and regarding the future it says: "Efrayim shall not envy [Yehuda], and Yehuda shall not vex [Efrayim]." That is to say that Efrayim will not have a claim against Yehuda about deviating from Halakha and he will not vex him about it. For God, blessed be He, will show Efrayim that Yehuda's intention is for the sake of heaven, and not for his own benefit, and thus there will be peace between them. (Mei ha-Shilo'ach, pt. 1, Vayeshev)   

            With these words, R. Mordechai Yosef tries to distinguish between the tribe of Yehudaand the tribe of Efrayim, who vex each other for many years. The Mei ha-Shilo'ach teaches us that this struggle between the two tribes is a struggle between two outlooks on the world, and we might even say, between two modes of Divine governance.


            Efrayim represents the world of Torah and Halakha: "For the life that the Holy One, blessed be He, gave the tribe of Efrayim was to understand Him at all times in every act according to the law and the Halakha without deviating from it." The world of Torah and Halakha, teaches us R. Mordechai Yosef Leiner, constitutes a perfect world, from which one must not deviate, and spiritual life is built out of absolute adherence to the world of Torah and Halakha.


            R. Mordechai Yosef, however, proposes the daringly novel idea that this is not the only perspective on Divine service. Yehuda represents the direct and unmediated encounter with God: "To look at all times to God, blessed be He, in every act." This perspective does not appear to pass through the Torah and through Halakha, and it seems appropriate for the period of the Patriarchs,[5] who learned God's will not from the Torah or from tradition, but through listening to and contemplating the will of God, who would appear to them in speech, in a vision, or in a nocturnal dream.


            The religious position growing out of the tribe of Yehuda has no tradition or legacy; it rests totally on contemplation in the here and now of God's will and what he wants of me. Therefore, asserts R. Mordechai Yosef Leiner, "a man of Yehuda" never lives a life of "a commandment performed by men by rote." For the essence of this latter approach rests on the actions of yesterday, on the continuity and constancy of religious existence. However, one who draws his vitality from the current presence of God, one who learns about his next step by listening to the voice of God echoing within him at this moment, does not live a routine life, nor does he serve his Creator in the manner of "commandments performed by men by rote." For every action involves a new command, one that is unique to this moment. The "cost" of this approach, asserts R.Mordechai Yosef Leiner in a most bold and unreasonable manner, is that "this sometimes obliges that he perform an action against Halakha, for 'it is time to act on behalf of the Lord; [they have made void Your Torah]' (Tehilim 119:126)."


            How can there be a contradiction between God's will and the Halakha that He commanded? R. Mordechai Yosef Leiner notes this theological problem in this passage, writing: "For it can be that even though the law is true according to the claims of the litigants, it is nevertheless not true, for one may have put forward a false claim, as we find… and so too we find in all matters."


            In these words, the Mei ha-Shilo'ach alludes to the tension between the subjective and the objective. The law is a law of truth, but it relies on the limited human judgment of judges, who sometimes err in their reasoning, and sometimes in their limited vision, for example, when they fail to see that one of the litigants is lying. Halakha recognizes this limitation, and to the majority who disagree with R. Eliezer regarding the oven of Akhnai (Bava Metzi'a 59b), saying, "It is not in heaven," even God Himself responds in absolute submission: "My sons have defeated me." Even God, as it were, recognizes the limits of Halakha, the subjective truth upon which it is founded, and its striving for human truth, rather than Divine veracity.


            The Mei ha-Shilo'ach asserts that the tribe of Yehuda and their descendants are capable of rising above this subjective truth, above the world of Halakha, and attuning themselves to God's objective will that expresses itself in "a heavenly voice." The Mei ha-Shilo'ach asserts that this will does not always correspond to the Halakha which grows out of subjective, human limitation. He who is able and fit to hear this "heavenly voice," asserts the Mei ha-Shilo'ach boldly, must at times act in opposition to the Halakha.


            Another explanation of this rare and bold approach[6] is found in the following passage in the Sefat Emet:

Regarding the sin of Nadav and Avihu, "which He commanded them not… but let your brethren, the whole house of Israel bewail the burning." It is possible to suggest that the children of Israel set "we shall do" before "we shall hear," like the ministering angels. Afterwards, they fell from this level, and it was said: "Like a man you shall die." Now,Nadav and Avihu maintained the first level like the angels, as it is stated "who perform his bidding" and then "hearkening" (Tehilim 103:20). The reason is that an angel feels God's will within himself, and is called "who does His will" (ibid., v. 21), as is known. But because the community of Israel was not at this level, Nadav and Avihu were punished. It is possible that this itself is included in what [the Sages] said that they issued a halakhicruling in the presence of their master. And they also said: When will the two old men die? This means that they said that they can repair matters so that the children of Israel would be governed as before the sin. In truth, however, this was not His will, for everything is prepared before Him in order. Each and every generation with its own unique mode of governance. While it was caused by sin, nevertheless, it is all true. This may be the allusion in "I will be sanctified in them that come near Me," because of "before all the people I will be glorified." For the strength of the community of the simple members of the children of Israel is greater than the strength of the individuals who are near to Him. And therefore "let your brethren, the whole house of Israel bewail the burning," for they caused their death. (Sefat EmetShemini 5648)

            The Sefat Emet makes an essential distinction between the individual and the community, and he also distinguishes between two levels, as did the Mei ha-Shilo'ach. The lower one consists of the recognition of God's word in an indirect manner, through the Torah, Halakha and tradition. The higher level is that of the angels: "The reason is that an angel feels God's will within himself." At this level, a person feels the will of God in a direct and unmediated manner, and the voice of God reveals itself in his innermost parts: "He feels in himself."


            The Sefat Emet proposes that when Israel put "we shall do" before "we shall hear," they attained this level, which means that Israel was capable of doing even before hearing, for the inner Divine will hidden within them would lead them to action, even before they heard the laws and ordinances. This is the aspect of "their kidneys advise them." However, in the wake of their sin, Israel fell from the level of the angels to the level of man, and from then on they had to "hear before they could act," having the aspect of "hearken and hear, O Israel" (Devarim 27:9). Now, as it were, the Israelites as a nation lost their inner hearing, and required "external hearing." This is the world of the Written Torah, the Oral Law, the Halakha, the enactments and the laws, that come to direct the people of Israel from the outside how to walk in the word of God.


            The Sefat Emet asserts that this is the level of the community, but in every generation, there are individuals who attain the angelic level of inner attentiveness, so that they hear the will of God.


            According to this, the tension between God's will and His commandments does not lie in the gap between objectivity and subjectivity, and it is not the result of human "blindness" that does not allow a person to know the objective will of God, as argued by the Mei ha-Shilo'ach. This gap is the result of the difference between the individual and the community. Both the Torah and its commandments, asserts the Sefat Emet in contrast to the Mei ha-Shilo'ach, and also the Divine will that reveals itself to the private individual, and at first glance contradicts the Torah and itsmitzvot – both reflect the will of God and both are true. However, the former is the will that governs the community, whereas the latter is the will that governs the individual. The fact that sin caused a fall from the higher level to the lower, asserts the Sefat Emet, does not impair the truth of the lower level: "While it was caused by sin, nevertheless, it is all true." From the moment thatIsrael lost the angelic "capacity to hear," and this capacity was replaced by "human hearing" through the Torah and its mitzvot, the Torah and its mitzvot became the true will of God, and everything is true.


            This fact has a great ramification, which is the essence of the difference between theSefat Emet and the Mei ha-Shilo'ach, for from the moment that we have established that we are dealing with Divine truth, the individual is obliged to give up on his individual apprehension for the sake of the community: "This may be the allusion in 'I will be sanctified in them that come near Me,' because of 'before all the people I will be glorified.' For the strength of the community of the simple members of the children of Israel is greater than the strength of the individuals who are near to Him."


            The Torah and its mitzvot are the optimal tools for the people of Israel as a people. There are times, however, that the individual at his angelic level merits hearing the unmediated will of God, which sometimes contradicts the Torah and its mitzvotHe is, however, obligated to give up this hearing, for "the strength of the community of the simple members of the children of Israel is greater than the strength of the individuals who are near to Him."


            It is indeed possible, argues the Sefat Emet, that Nadav and Avihu heard the unmediated will of God that contradicts the laws governing the sacrifices, as they express themselves in the Torah and its mitzvotHowever, the fact that they were individuals coupled with the fact that the governance of the Torah and its mitzvot is absolutely true, obligated them to totally waive their individual apprehension. Their sin was that they were not ready to waive their apprehension and bring themselves under the governance of the community.[7]



Qualification of this Position


            The Mei ha-Shilo'ach emphasizes the connection between the tribe of Yehuda and a "sin for the sake of heaven," which is an essential condition for entering this religious position. EvenNadav and Avihu who were from the tribe of Levi could enter this tribe because through their mother – the sister of Nachshon son of Aminadav – they were connected to the tribe of Yehuda. This is the principle of "a king may breach a fence" which establishes that only members of the royal family – i.e., members of the tribe of Yehuda from whom the scepter will not depart – are able to "breach the fence" – i.e., to breach Halakha.


            Why is it specifically the tribe of Yehuda that is fit for that level?


            The answer to this question seems to be connected to the great danger that is latent in this revolutionary approach. This approach opens a wide door, allowing a person's evil yetzer to enter "for the sake of heaven." Many people in Jewish history, and even in our generation, have invoked "for the sake of heaven" to declare the unfit fit and give legitimacy to the darkest aspects of man and the world. How does a person protect himself from this ultimate danger? How can one walk on this narrow bridge without falling into the depths of sin and lust?


Belonging to the tribe of Yehuda, so it seems, is not only a genetic matter. We are talking about the amazing capability of total effacement and enormous modesty. When the author of theMei Shilo'ach explains the idea of not walking in the path of "commandments performed by men by rote" and abandoning the accepted path of normative Halakha, he says: "Nevertheless todayhe does not want to rely on himself, but rather that God, blessed be He, should illuminate His will to him anew. This sometimes obliges that he perform an action against Halakha, for 'it is time to act on behalf of the Lord, etc.'"


            In our time the complaint raised against the world of Halakha sets individuality on the one hand against halakhic norms on the other. This is not the language of the Mei ha-Shilo'ach; the quest for individuality, argues the Mei ha-Shilo'ach, is the clearest indication that we are dealing with the evil yetzerIt is precisely the giving up of Halakhah that involves giving up of the self, asserts the Mei ha-Shilo'ach, for it requires total effacement to the will of God. From Yehuda to David we learn from the tribe of Yehuda about absolute self-effacement and readiness to serve as the "seat" of God's will.


            As long as a person holds on to his individuality, as long as his ego is intact, as long as he does not become the aspect of Malkhut, which "has nothing of itself," he will never be able to dare to claim that the will of God is speaking through his throat. "Nullify your will before His will" - nullification of one's own will - is the basic condition for "making your will as if it were His will."[8]


            The Mei ha-Shilo'ach goes even further, arguing that even Nadav and Avihu, who apparently met the conditions necessary for such action, were punished in order to teach man "that a person should do nothing without [first] clarifying it seven times."[9]


            Absolute modesty, effacement to the will of God, and being clean of the evil yetzer are the necessary conditions for seeking the unmediated Divine will detached from the world of Halakha.


Additional Qualifications of this Approach


            R. Tzadok, disciple of the Mei Shilo'ach, wrote in a similar manner, adding several qualifications:

"One is not permitted to enter a ruin" (Berakhot 3a), i.e., a place void of true human habitation and mitzva, having only optional thought. "Because of suspicion" – that he should suspect himself of perhaps harboring some lust for the matter. "And because of evil spirits" – for any place void of holiness makes room for evil spirits and the force of theyetzer to grow in strength. "And because of collapse" – for a ruin in generally unstable, having no [permanent] existence. As [the Sages] have said (beginning of Otiyot de-RabbiAkiva): "Falsehood has no legs." Even for the purpose of [Divine] service to pray, one should not enter if he can pray on the road, the royal road open to Divine service. And even though the royal road is full of travelers who have ceased walking in the path of God, it is preferable to perform there a brief service as is possible, rather than to enter the ruin and external thoughts for the purpose of service. Unless it is a new ruin, new from him; and with two, that he is not alone in his service on this path; and with fit people, whose entire intention is to serve God; and not in the field, the place of the power of the evilyetzer(Tzidkat ha-Tzadik 32).

            R. Tzadok expounds upon the Agada in Berakhot 3a which describes a person who is on the road and wishes to enter a ruin in order to obtain a little privacy so that he can pray with greater concentration. According to the Gemara, there are three reasons not to enter the ruin:


1)                      Suspicion – people will suspect that he entered the ruin in order to engage in sinful behavior.


2)                      Collapse – the danger exists that the ruin is unstable and may fall upon him while he is engaged in prayer.


3)                      Evil spirits – a place that is far away from human habitation is controlled by evil spirits.


It is therefore preferable, states the Gemara, that the person pray on the main road, even though the passers-by are liable to disturb his prayer.


In conclusion, the Gemara puts forward conditions which when met allow a person to enter a ruin for the purpose of prayer:


1)                           The ruin must be new – so that there is no danger of collapse.


2)                           He must not enter alone – so that there should be no concern of evil spirits which only appear when a person is by himself.


3)                           That he and the other person must be known as fit people – so that there be no suspicion that they entered in order to engage in sinful conduct.


4)                           That it not be out in the field – the place of the evil spirits, where they are liable to cause damage even in the presence of more than one person.


            R. Tzadok sees in each of these conditions and descriptions a symbol of some spiritual state.


            A person who wishes to enter into a ruin in order to pray wishes to follow an optional path in his service of God. Attention should be paid to the fact that R. Tzadok does not speak of "sin" but of an "optional path," and so the problem is less extreme than according to the formulation of the Mei ha-Shilo'ach.


            Suspicion, asserts R. Tzadok, is the absence of cleanliness found in such an action, the suspicion being that the person is being led by some hidden lust, rather than by a desire to serve God.


            The evil spirits symbolize the evil yetzer's control over a person when he is not padded and protected by the mitzvot and by other worshippers of God around him. When a person follows his own path in Divine service, argues R. Tzadok, and he is not connected to a community and to an orderly and known path, the danger of being controlled by his yetzer is great, so that even if his initial motivation is clean of lust and he is above "suspicion," the danger still exists of his veering from "service for the sake of heaven."


            Collapse, argues R. Tzadok, represents the deficiency that the Mei ha-Shilo'ach saw as an advantage – temporariness. According to the Mei ha-Shilo'ach, permanence is a sign of fixation and routine. According to R. Tzadok, fixedness and permanence guarantee eternity, whereas temporariness will not endure.[10]


            R. Tzadok argues that these dangers bring the Gemara to prefer the "royal road," even though R. Tzadok is aware of the price that following this path extracts. The public road used by the masses distracts a person from personal, unmediated connection; at times it impairs his ability to reach the end of the service he is performing, and at times it is inappropriate for his spirit. But, according to R. Tzadok, it is also the great guarantee that it will protect him against all the evil spirits and all the seductions that lie in wait for someone who follows an independent path. R. Tzadok is aware of the price extracted by Halakha and religious norms, but he is prepared to pay the price in order to be saved from the dangers lying on the alternative path.


            The Gemara, however, does not stop here; it opens the way for someone who despite it all wishes to take the other road.


            The new ruin, argues R. Tzadok, symbolizes the new path coming from the person.


            According to R. Tzadok, the two fit people whom the Gemara permits to enter into the ruin symbolize the demand placed upon someone who wishes to follow the optional path that he notbe alone in his service, and that their intentions – his and that of the other person who joins him – be entirely for the sake of heaven.


            And not in the field, according to R. Tzadok, is the Gemara's insistence that a person follow his own path in a place that is clean of the evil yetzer.


            Thus, besides the cleanliness mentioned by the Mei ha-Shilo'ach, R. Tzadok adds – and even when we are dealing with an optional path and not a sin – three more conditions: the new path should come from him, there must be another person, and the place must be clean of the evil yetzer.


            The other person's joining this process constitutes a sort of objectification of the process. It involves review that is intended to protect a person from the evil spirits and from the development of his evil yetzer, in the sense of "they helped every one his neighbor; and every one said to his brother, Be of good courage" (Yeshaya 41:6).


            The new path coming from him, so it seems, is meant to prove that we are dealing with an inner process, rather than the person being dragged along by a passing spirit and norm. We are dealing with an inner tendency and a deep need that is not a caprice or the result of social pressure, but the product of deep and inner contemplation. The new path coming from him solves the problem of temporariness which R. Tzadok warns against, for at this moment, when the person is driven by his inner truth, we are dealing with connection to eternity, despite the fact that in the dimension of time we are dealing with a single moment and a one-time situation. The temporariness is overcome by the depth and inwardness that is exposed when we are dealing with a new path coming from the person himself.


R. Tzadok adds one more qualification. All this is only possible when we are dealing with a path not controlled by the evil yetzer. The optional path cannot be on a plain ruled by the yetzerand desire. There is no comparing one who wishes to pray an additional prayer – an optional prayer, in order to serve God, to one who wishes to eat an additional meal in order to serve Him, argues R. Tzadok. Some places are the primary sites of operation of the yetzer, and there one must not set out on a new path. For in such a situation, it is possible that even a second person will be unable to protect him from seduction and deviation from his original intention that was for the sake of heaven.


The disciple seems to have limited, restricted, and almost uprooted the daring novelty of his master. The limitations that he imposes – which, as has been previously noted, relate to an optional path and not to sin - leave the Mei Shilo'ach's proposal with almost no practical relevance, despite the far-reaching theological novelty contained therein.





            In contrast to these positions, we shall end with the view of Rav Kook who also noted this tension, but his conclusion, so it seems, is entirely different:


When one follows the supernal feeling of the appearance of the holy spirit, or any wisdom or appearance in the world, without detailed connection to the Torah and its deeds, and the good traits that follow therefrom – this is the sin of Nadav and Avihu, the separation of the paternal principle from the supreme mother. Those who act in that manner think that they are drawing near to the holy, offering even a strange fire, and entering the holy, drunk with wine, without the fear of heaven that stems from a supreme source and comes through a covered head, but rather with an uncovered heard. And each one unites with his unique comprehension without the supernal binding of the inheritance of Moshe's Torah. And they do not consult with each other, and they issue halakhic rulings in the presence of their master, out of a recognition of inner greatness. The great depth of this holiness must efface itself before the source of the Torah… Those who know God cannot be limited by the great limits set by Moshe and Aharon. When they expand, they are rejected from the world, and they do not build a family, and they have no children. And they return as Pinchas, he being Eliyahu, who is filled with the spirit of God and zealotry for the covenant. The tradition and the sanctified service based on prophecy and the Torah, and the supreme elevation that respects the holiness and limits the conditions of spiritual life, but nevertheless elevates itself above all worldly values were combined in Israel, to bear with its great strength the burden of exile and all its toil, and allow the penetration of the light of salvation and redemption. "Remember the Torah of Moshe My servant, which I commanded him in Chorev for all Israel, both statutes and judgments. Behold, I will you send you Eliya the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers" (Malakhi 3:22-24). The stormy spirit of youth, which stirs up with strength and might, together with the orderly spirit of old age, that is filled with solemnity and caution, join together to impact upon life, spiritual and material, to hasten salvation and become the basis for the offspring of God, a shining light to the son ofYishai, the anointed of God, the spirit of our nostrils, when the two of them will come together, Eliyahu the prophet and the messiah son of David. (Shemone Kevatzim, VI, 265;Orot ha-Kodesh, III, p. 360).


            In these amazing words, Rav Kook summarizes the two movements that we have discussed in this lecture. On the one hand, "the supernal feeling of the appearance of the holy spirit, or any wisdom or appearance in the world, without detailed connection to the Torah and its deeds." On the other hand, the Torah and the Halakha that come from Moshe Rabbenu and are handed down from generation to generation as an inheritance.


            At the beginning of this passage, Rav Kook establishes unequivocally: "The great depth of this holiness must efface itself before the source of the Torah." It is impossible, contends RavKook, for a spiritual movement to lead a person to act against Halakha. When people are lead by this movement, they are "those who know God, who cannot be limited by the great limits set by Moshe and Aharon. When they expand, they are rejected from the world, and they do not build a family, and they have no children."


            The emphasis placed by Scripture upon the fact that Nadav and Avihu had no children teaches us that when they made their choice, they chose to sever themselves not only from the Torah, but also from the world.[11] Rav Kook teaches us that giving up on the boundaries set by the Torah and by Halakha, means giving up on life in this world. Thus, the personality that represents this spiritual position, argues Rav Kook, is the prophet Eliyahu who was zealous for God, and who ran away to the wilderness and rose in a tempest to heaven, since he was unable to reconcile himself with this world.[12]


Eliyahu, in his first appearance, does not have a family, does not live among society, does not adopt the tools in the framework of which we live in this world, and therefore he goes up to heaven in a tempest, just as Nadav and Avihu rose in their burning fire.


Rav Kook argues that the desire for supernal holiness that does not efface itself before the boundaries set by the Torah is impossible within the framework of this world.


At the end of this passage, Rav Kook connects the first movement with "the stormy spirit of youth, which stirs up with strength and might," and the second movement with "the orderly spirit of old age, that is filled with solemnity and caution." Here already Rav Kook, at least in the future, allows for the very existence of the two spiritual movements, as establishing our worship of God.


            The combination of these two aspects, contends Rav Kook, is in essence the combination of "the world-to-come" with "this world." The combination of the Infinite with which the zealous for God and those filled with supernal holiness wish to meet, and the Torah and the mitzvot which provide man with the tools to live in holiness, purity and conjunction in this world.


            "Remember the Torah of Moshe My servant, which I commanded him in Chorev for allIsrael, both statutes and judgments. Behold, I will you send you Eliya the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord" (Malakhi 3:22-23). The prophet Malakhiconcludes his prophecy, joining together Moshe and his Torah and Eliyahu and his zealotry.


            "And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers" (ibid., v. 24). He will reconnect the world of limits, the world of the fathers, to the world that wishes to breach the walls, the world of the children.


            Rav Kook teaches us that Nadav and Avihu are the constant movement of the force of youth that is implanted within us, that wishes to draw nearer and nearer to the point of no limits. As we approach the final redemption, this force will serve as an important foundation as it combines with the force of old age, the force of order, the force of the Torah and limits. Together they will light a great fire, a flame of God, that will rise in a tempest to heaven, and illuminate the entire world in a new light.




[1] See Rashbam who infers from a careful reading of the biblical text that the problem lay in the strange fire that the sons of Aharon put on their censers and their failure to wait for a fire from heaven which was supposed to descend upon the censers on that day. Ibn Ezra speaks of an action that was not preceded by a command. Chizkuni argues that Nadav and Avihu sinned in that they brought incense belonging to themselves rather than to the congregation. And so too: "R. Yehoshua of Sakhnin in the name of R. Levi said: The sons of Aharon died because of four things, all of which mention death: because they entered without washing their hands and feet, which mentions death: "When they go into the Tent of Meeting, they shall wash with water, that they die not" (Shemot 30:20); and because they entered without wearing [all] the priestly garments, which mentions death, as it is stated: "And they shall be on Aharon and his son, when they go into the Tent of Meeting" (Vayikra 10), and what were they missing – Resh Lakish said: They were missing the robe, which mentions death, as it is stated: "And it shall be upon Aharonwhen he comes to minister; and its sound shall be heard" (Shemot 28:35); and because they did not have children, about which death is mentioned, as it is stated: "And Nadav and Avihu died, and they did not have children"; and because they entered the sanctuary after having drunk wine, and it is written: "Do not drink wine or strong drink… lest you die" (Vayikra 10:9) (Tanchuma,Acharei Mot 6).


[2] This approach will be developed and confronted in the continuation of the lecture.


[3] This passage is set against the backdrop of the burning of the incense in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, an act that reflects the highest possible level and pinnacle of service to which the priests could aspire.


[4] R. Nachman testifies about himself that even he was sometimes forced to bring his conjunction with God in prayer to an artificial end. For had he not done so, he would have "gone up in a tempest to heaven" and lost his ability to make repairs in this world.


[5] Elsewhere, the Sefat Emet identifies this form of life with the way of the Patriarchs.


[6] Perhaps even unique. R. Tzadik haKohen of Lublin, disciple of the Mei ha-Shilo'ach, significantly tempered this approach. Similar notes are found in the Sefat Emet, who also belonged to the same school (Peshischa – Kotzk – Gur), but there they are marginal, and have no practical ramifications.


[7] The words of the Mei ha-Shilo'ach (cited at the beginning of this lecture) alludes to this as well: "And similarly the incident of Nadav and Avihu recorded in the Torah comes to teach the individual fear." The incident involving Nadav and Avihu, as opposed to the sin of the golden calf, was an act performed by individuals, and it reflects the personal position of an individual who stands before God, at times acting against the command that seems to be appropriate for the community. According to the Sefat Emet, there are times that an individual must pay the price of communal governance that may not always be appropriate for him, but he is required to pay this price because he belongs to this mode of governance which also constitutes the truth.


[8] We joined together two unconnected clauses of the Mishna which states: "He would say: Do His will as if it were your will, that He may do your will as if it were His will. Nullify your will before His will, that He may nullify the will of others before your will" (Avot 2:4). 


[9] An additional qualification and warning is found in the following words of the Mei ha-Shilo'ach: "'After the death of the two sons of Aharon… Speak to Aharon your brother, that he come not at all times, etc.' 'At all times' in the sense of 'with all the desire of your soul.' That is, after you have seen that all of the holiness of Nadav and Avihu did not save them from sin when they came near to God, because there was more love in their depths than fear – therefore He warned him that he should not imagine that it is in his power to guard against this, and that he will guard himself better than they did. Rather, he must always be worried about this and he must know that he always needs God's help. For 'thus shall Aharon come [into the holy place]' indicates that he must go in the very same manner as did Nadav and Avihu, for they entered in holiness and purity and great caution. The sole advice is 'with a young bullock for a sin offering'" (Mei ha-Shilo'ach, pt. 1,Acharei Mot).


[10] My revered teacher, R. Yehudal Amital, often contrasts all kinds of new projects that pop up to connect Jews to Torah and mitzvot, which disappear as quickly as they appear, to the "archaic" project of Daf Yomi which has lasted for generations.


[11] To a certain degree, this is similar to the position of R. Natan that we saw at the beginning of this lecture.


[12] In this context, there is an interesting discussion regarding Eliyahu's conduct on Mount Carmel, who in certain sense acted against Halakha which forbids the offering of sacrifice outside the Temple. The Gemara explains that Eliyahu acted on the basis of his prophetic powers that allow him to issue emergency rulings against the Torah: "Come and hear: 'You shall listen to him' – even if he tells you to violate one of the mitzvot in the Torah, as in the case of Eliyahu on Mount Carmel – all in accordance with the needs of the hour, listen to him" (Yebamot 90b). In light of our context, we may view the incident as an aspect of "it is time to act on behalf of the Lord; they have made void Your Torah." Eliyahu operates beyond the boundaries of this world, and to a certain degree, also beyond the boundaries of the Torah. This is the aspect of Nadav and Avihu, according to Rav Kook, and this is the aspect of Eliyahu the prophet.


(Translated by David Strauss)