The intention of Nadav and Avihu was to sanctify themselves, but instead of being rewarded, they were killed. Why? Because holiness without the acceptance of the Yoke of Heaven is strange fire.
Without the “Yoke of Heaven”, all of the mitzvot lose their significance. For example, someone might say: I observe Shabbat because I think it is nice, and not because G-d commanded me to do so. Such a person does not fulfill G-d’s commandments, but rather is following his own thoughts and ego. He is performing the act out of intellectual or emotional “agreement”, and is only reinforcing his own arrogance and conceit, despite the fact that on an exterior level, he is performing the same mitzvah just as you and me.
We have dealt with this concept on many occasions, especially as it pertains to the vast numbers of religious Jews who have difficulty relating to “national” mitzvot, such as goyim in Eretz Yisrael, war, vengeance, etc.This, as we have stated, is due to foreign influences, and the failure toaccept the Yoke of Heaven in it’s entirety. Through the sin of Nadav and Avihu, we will now deal with this concept from a different angle.
Many explanations are given for the death of Nadav and Avihu. In any case, we need not look beyond the simple understanding of the verses in our parsha to gain the proper insight: “And they offered strange fire before the Lord which He commanded them not.” In other words, they deviated from the exact instructions which they had been given by G-d to perform the service. They added something extra, something strange. In order to grasp the severity oftheir sin, we must understand the background. We are talking about the eighth day of the consecration service (“milieuim”) of Aharon and sons. These were days of spiritual elevation and preparation so that they can begin their service in the Tabernacle. During these days, Moshe, Aharon, and his sons were set apart from everyone else, occupied in the very special service G-d had commanded them. The details of this service had been meticulously described in parshas “TiZave” and “Tzav”.
The eighth day was the absolute climax of the service. On this day the Tabernacle was erected, and the holy work inside it was to commence. Everyone was in a state of holy-exuberance which had never yet been experienced. And behold, Nadav and Avihu’s love for G-d reached a new height, bursting forth almost uncontrollably. In their boundless enthusiasm, they felt a need to offer extra incense before G-d, something which they had not been commanded to do. And then tragedy struck.
If this had happened today, surely people would ask: That’s a sin? On the contrary, all this stemmed from their feelings of holiness! They should begiven a prize! But here a great lesson is to be learned: There is no sanctity outside of the framework which G-d has set down, which is the “halacha”. The Torah has a good reason for twice repeating in great detailthe halachot of the “milieuim” service, despite the fact that these halachot are no longer applicable for today. It wants to teach us that even the “gedolim”, during grand moments of spiritual elevation, must remember that there is a very specific procedure which G-d set down for how one must sanctify himself. It is not “hefker”. Any deviation from the procedure which G-d determined, no matter how small it may be, is liable to bring tragedy. Pay attention to the words of the Torah in defining the sin of Nadav and Avihu: “And they offered a strange fire before the Lord which He commanded them not”. Their sin was for doing something which was not included in what G-d commanded them to do. This is in itself a sin: G-d gave a clear plan, and then Nadav and Avihu came up with their own “agenda”.
A lesson can be learned here that is applicable to some of the approaches to Judaism which are prevalent today. High spiritual elevation and enthusiasm which exceeds the “dry” and “square” halacha, is something very dangerous indeed. One who is trying to sanctify himself with holiness, may often feel that the halacha is restricting him. At first glance, such a feeling stems from a healthy aspiration for extra holiness. And then, according to his personal discretion and intellect, he begins to place emphasis on certain things. Without realizing it, he creates a new religion. A “strange fire”. What is really happening here, is that he has broken off the “Yoke of Heaven”, due to his ego and lack of readiness to understand that the foundation to holiness is the acceptance of the yoke of his Creator, and the subjugation of his own ego.
The way to sanctify oneself and cling to G-d – only G-d Himself can determine. Just as it is clear that one cannot be “religious” in his heart, without fulfilling mitzvot, so, too, is it clear that our human intellect and personal emotions can never figure out the proper way to cling to G-d. Such feelings are brief and transient, blowing breezes which leave no real impression.
It is likely that the commandment given to Aharon forbidding him to mourn his children, is intended to complete this message. In other words, because the death of his sons was due to the fact that they went after their own inner emotions and ignored the “halacha”, Aharon must prove that even in the most tragic situation, one must overcome his emotions, if Hashem commands it. And indeed: “And Aharon was silent”. What greatness! Aharon accepts the sentence, transcending all personal loss and sorrow.
The Yoke of Heaven! Before we even “understand” the Torah; before we even”agree” with the mitzvot – we must fulfill it to the letter. Afterwards, one can try to understand. In the meantime, do the mitzvah even if it seems to go against your “conscience”. We will do – and we will listen.