|This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H, my grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H, my uncle Reuven Nachum Ben Moshe & my great aunt Rivkah Sorah Bas Zev Yehuda HaKohein.
It should also be in Zechus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandfather Moshe Ben Breindel, and my grandmothers Channah Freidel Bas Sarah, and Shulamis Bas Etta
-Mordechai Shlomo Ben Sarah Tili
-Noam Shmuel Ben Simcha
-Chaya Rochel Ettel Bas Shulamis
-Nechama Hinda Bas Tzirel Leah
-And all of the Cholei Yisrael
-It should also be a Z’chus for an Aliyah of the holy Neshamos of Dovid Avraham Ben Chiya Kehas—R’ Dovid Winiarz ZT”L, Miriam Liba Bas Aharon—Rebbetzin Weiss A”H, as well as the Neshamos of those whose lives were taken in terror attacks (Hashem Yikom Damam), and a Z’chus for success for Tzaha”l as well as the rest of Am Yisrael, in Eretz Yisrael and in the Galus.
שְּׁמִינִי ● Sh’mini
● How did the transgression of Nadav and Avihu generate a “Kiddush Hashem”? ●
“Kiddush Hashem—One Way or Another”
The tragic deaths of Aharon HaKohein’s sons Nadav and Avihu, at the climax of the inauguration of the Mishkan is a difficult topic on multiple grounds. While from the simple understanding of the text, Nadav and Avihu were consumed by a fire from G-d because they offered up an unauthorized “Eish Zarah,” or strange fire before Him1, there are apparently way more moving parts to the story, borne out of the “unwritten” information recorded by Chazal and elaborated on by the M’forshim.
Consequently, one of the most challenging questions one has to address, at the end of this entire event is what conclusions we’re supposed to draw concerning Nadav and Avihu, looking at their actions in hindsight. Were they righteous individuals or were they evil, or at least deeply flawed individuals? Were their actions appropriate and praiseworthy on any grounds or were they flat-out incorrect?
At first glance, it has to be a given that Nadav and Avihu were wrong for what they had done. That is perhaps the simplest understanding of the narrative. They did something which they were not commanded to do, and G-d took their lives as a result. No one seems to dispute that point. But, of course, that does not mean that they were not righteous individuals regardless. Even the righteous make mistakes and the Torah is not shy about voicing the faults in our heroes. Righteous as Nadav and Avihu might have been, that they committed some offence that was severe enough to die for, thus demonstrating a fault. If that is so, one would assume that the text of this story would fully and unequivocally communicate this tragic flaw.
The problem is that while the text ardently implies the faults of Nadav and Avihu, we find, in Moshe’s words of consolation, what looks like a sugarcoating, whitewashing, and almost overpraising of Nadav and Avihu. For this quest, we will be investigating these words for their deeper meaning.
FIRST STOP: The Deaths of Nadav & Avihu
Immediately following Nadav and Avihu’s deaths, Moshe Rabbeinu addresses their father, his brother Aharon and reassures him, “…Hu Asheir Dibeir Hashem Leimor B’Krovai Ekadeish V’Al P’nei Chal HaAm Ekaveid…”-“…It is as Hashem had spoken: ‘Through those close to Me [lit., through my close ones, siblings], I will be sanctified, and [subsequently] in the presence of the entire nation I shall be glorified…”2
Now, what exactly does Moshe’s statement mean and what was he trying to convey to his brother? Rashi explains that earlier in Parshas Tetzaveh3, when Hashem said that His Mishkan would be sanctified through His glory (“B’Chvodi”-“through My honor”), He was actually alluding to the fact that the Mishkan would ultimately be sanctified through those who are very close and beloved to Him (“B’Chvodai”-“through My honored ones”).4 Moshe communicated that until that day, he had thought that he and his brother Aharon were the honorable candidates through whom Hashem would ultimately sanctify the Mishkan. However, since Nadav and Avihu became the catalysts of this sanctification, Moshe reasoned to Aharon that they must have been even greater than both he and Aharon themselves. Accordingly, the deaths of Nadav and Avihu at this momentous occasion indicate the unique closeness which they had with Hashem above everyone else.5
OBSTACLE: Kiddush Hashem or Chillul Hashem?
Although Moshe’s assessment of Nadav and Avihu serves as a wonderful tribute to their souls and a comforting message for their father, the conclusion Moshe reached appears widely problematic on a number of accounts. For now, we will just address one main issue.
How was the Mishkan sanctified through the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, presumably a positive effect, if their deaths were a direct consequence of their sin or their trespassing of the Will of G-d? At least on the surface, Moshe’s suggestion that they somehow generated a “Kiddush Hashem” or a Sanctification of G-d’s Name does not ring consistent with our common conception of Kiddush Hashem, which, correct me if I’m wrong, is typically the result of a fulfillment of G-d’s Will. Most would probably argue that, on the contrary, trespassing G-d’s Will creates a Chillul Hashem, a desecration of G-d’s Name, not sanctification.
ROAD MARKER: When the Righteous are Judged
The start of an answer to our first question is a simple, but loaded comment offered by Rashi on our story. How is it that a Kiddush Hashem results from sin? Apparently, it doesn’t, at least not directly. Rashi clarifies that it is when Hashem exacts judgment upon the righteous for their sin, and essentially makes an example of them, that He becomes revered and praised as a result.6
As far as Chazal are concerned, G-d did allude to the idea that He would be sanctified through those who are especially close to Him, so perhaps Moshe’s inference was well-founded. If there is such a precedent for “judgment against the righteous” generating a Kiddush Hashem, perhaps Nadav and Avihu were such objects of that Kiddush Hashem. Accordingly, Moshe was consoling Aharon by informing him that although his sons died, they were still righteous evidenced by the fact that they were catalysts of this Kiddush Hashem. Now, this tradition needs to be qualified.
TAKING QUESTIONS: Judgment of the Righteous or of the Sinners?
We just established this rule that, apparently, a Kiddush Hashem is created through the judgment of the righteous. The question is what exactly that means and if it is really an accurate statement. Chazal specified that when the righteous are judged for their sins, He becomes revered. But is it really because they are righteous that this result is met? Or is it because they sinned and they got exactly what they deserved? In other words, why does “righteousness” have to be factored into this discussion? One might argue that it is when Hashem judges sinners of all spiritual denominations that He is revered and that a Kiddush Hashem is created, as people would learn to follow Hashem’s way properly when the sinners receive their comeuppance.
In fact, we might argue the greatest “Chillul Hashem” is the seeming lack of this consistent judgment in the world—that not everyone who sins seems to get what they deserve. And on the contrary, when the righteous who sin get penalized for their sins and the wicked sinners seem not to, it rubs those who want to be G-d-fearing the wrong way. This seeming lack of equity is the basis for theodicy, or as Chazal have referred to it, “Tzaddik V’Ra Lo Rasha V’Tov Lo”7—the suffering of the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked. If everyone who sinned would be judged equally in the public eye, no one would think twice about fulfilling G-d’s Will. All would be G-d-fearing. It would create an undoubted Kiddush Hashem.
Now, we don’t actually expect G-d to do that as that would obviously interfere with our free choice which is fundamental to G-d’s system and plan for mankind, but the point is that a Kiddush Hashem should be the result of Hashem’s judgment of any sinner, not merely the righteous. So, what did Chazal mean? We don’t praise most people who receive capital punishment as being righteous. What does the judgment of the righteous accomplish that the judgment of sinners could not? Is there any evidence that there is a difference, that in fact, there is this exceptional Kiddush Hashem that is spawned specifically by the retribution of the righteous?
A related question is what set apart the likes of Nadav and Avihu from just plain sinners. Maybe they weren’t so great after all as they committed a “crime” that Moshe and Aharon did not, and like regular citizens who commit a crime, they were punished. Moshe was telling Aharon otherwise, that Nadav and Avihu were something else—they were righteous and close to Hashem. Moshe had some insight that someone righteous was going to be the object of Kiddush Hashem. But, is there any evidence other than that which Hashem merely hinted to Moshe earlier? Chazal seem to assume that Moshe drew his conclusion in hindsight of Nadav and Avihu’s deaths, and perhaps he did. But, how might Chazal have known that for sure?
To answer our questions and get to the core of this narrative, we may have to view the entire stage of Nadav and Avihu in light of another similar but even more frequented Torah narrative. The scene of Nadav and Avihu is not the only one which features two apparently righteous brothers from the tribe of Levi who were accomplices in the transgression of the Will of G-d. In this other scene, there would be an undoubted “sanctification” of G-d’s Name that was created through the judgment of these righteous brothers. Where is this other story?
ANOTHER SITE: Mei Merivah
Later, in Parshas Chukas, we have a narrative which might serve as a sequel of sorts to the tragedy of Nadav and Avihu at Mei Merivah, the Waters of Strife.8 There, it was actually Moshe and Aharon themselves who were the “culprits” and the apparent victims of “Kiddush Hashem” as they were tending to the B’nei Yisrael’s thirst. Hashem told Moshe and Aharon to assemble the people, speak to the rock, and thereby extract water from the rock, however, Moshe mistakenly hit the rock.9
If one looks closely at the two texts together, there are many unmistakable connections between the them; they are virtually the same story on two different backdrops. Aside from the parallels we’ve already identified, in the beginning of both stories, the Chumash tells us that G-d’s glory appeared before the people.10 Furthermore, just as Nadav and Avihu “took” their fire pans and entered “before Hashem’s Presence,”11 Moshe “took” the staff and left “from before Hashem’s Presence.”12 Also, while in the Nadav and Avihu story, a fire “went out” from Hashem as a result of their action13, at Mei Merivah, water “goes out” from a rock as a result of Moshe’s action.14
The wordplay that connects the stories, as well, is fascinating, but listen closely now for the point that is most important for our purposes.
AT THE CROSSROADS: Kiddush Hashem or No Kiddush Hashem?
At Mei Merivah, Hashem told Moshe and Aharon, “…Ya’an Lo He’emantem Bi L’Hadisheini L’Einei B’nei Yisrael Lachein Lo Savi’u Es HaKahal HaZeh El HaAretz Asheir Nasati Lahem”-“…As a consequence [because] that you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me to the eyes of the B’nei Yisrael, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the land which I have given them.”15
Thus, Hashem declared an apparent failure on the part of Moshe and Aharon to produce the much needed Kiddush Hashem. Although that is certainly what it sounds like, one Pasuk later incongruously testifies that “Vayikadesh Bam”-“and He was [thereby] sanctified through them.”16
Indeed, one verse says that they did not sanctify G-d, and the very next verse says that, in fact, G-d was sanctified. Mind you, the same G-d Who told Moshe and Aharon that there was no Kiddush Hashem is the Divine Narrator of the Torah Who testified that there was a Kiddush Hashem. The obvious question is: Which one is it? Was G-d’s Name sanctified through Moshe and Aharon or wasn’t it?
The simple solution is that although G-d stated that Moshe and Aharon neglected to create a Kiddush Hashem, nonetheless, the consequence of the narrative overall was an apparent Kiddush Hashem. And what was the nature of that Kiddush Hashem? Rashi echoes the exact same sentiment here which we have cited above, that since Hashem exacted judgment against His holy ones, by barring Moshe and Aharon from entering the Promised Land, He becomes revered and sanctified.6 But that is not all Rashi relates here. In the end of his comments, he cites the words originally paraphrased by none other than Moshe from our very own story of Nadav and Avihu, “B’Krovai Ekadeish”-“Through those close to Me, I shall be sanctified.”2 Thus, we have a direct reference to our tragic narrative where apparently, the same thing result of Kiddush Hashem was actualized!
Now, even though we might not have known for sure at the time of Nadav and Avihu’s deaths how great they really were, from this second episode, we see that apparently, an explicit precedence, although later in time, for this concept of Hashem’s Name being sanctified through His penalizing of the righteous (of course, no one’s is going to debate Moshe and Aharon’s righteousness).
NATURAL PHENOMENON: A Righteous Example
Now that we have undeniable evidence to this notion highlighted by Chazal that Hashem is sanctified through the retribution dished out to the righteous, the next step is to understand why in fact it is true. How can we explain this phenomenon? Would one not say, as we’ve argued earlier, that G-d’s judgment of all sinners, righteous and wicked alike, should reasonably create an even greater Kiddush Hashem? Maybe, one might argue further that if Hashem would only judge the wicked and cut some slack for the righteous sinners, it would be the greatest Kiddush Hashem.
Although these alternatives certainly resonate—perhaps there would be a Kiddush Hashem of sorts, perhaps the Kiddush Hashem in either of these cases would be intrinsically lacking. Perhaps there really is a greater sanctification of G-d through the judgment of the righteous. What is the nature of that sanctification? Why is it greater than the judgment of the wicked?
Let us disregard the free choice argument for a moment and consider the “perfect world” scenario in which G-d publically targets the wicked for their every misdeed. At the outset, it sounds quite utopian. If G-d would strike down every wicked individual, there would be no more evil. A world of no evil would be an undoubted sanctification of G-d’s Name.
As ideal as that sounds, merely ridding the world of all evil is actually a minimalist goal in the greater scheme of things. G-d’s utopian society is made up of not merely innocent people who are not sociopathic wicked people, but of supremely righteous people. If G-d would merely scrutinize the sins of the wicked, the world would not learn how to be supremely righteous. The world would merely learn not to follow the example of the wicked. In other words, those who witness the judgment of the wicked will not gain a refined understanding of which deeds and character traits should be exemplified and which ones should not. They will merely conclude not to follow the mimic the slew of possible crimes which the “wicked” person committed which could mean a whole lot of things. Maybe the beholder will conclude not to murder or commit adultery. Maybe, he will learn to be a decent, functioning citizen of society. But, he won’t learn to become righteous. He won’t recognize the loftiest levels of reverence for G-d. If the standard is based on judgment of the wicked, we would have a decent world, yes, but decent at best. And for many people, unfortunately, that mediocre achievement is considered the gold standard.
However, when G-d scrutinizes the actions of the righteous and does so swiftly, directly, and noticeably, the beholders have the unique opportunity to recognize how even the greatest of individuals lack when they violate the Will of G-d. They learn that even individuals who have fine-tuned their way of living and have reached high plateaus in service of G-d can continue to fine-tune and reach even higher ones. That would result in an incredibly profound Kiddush Hashem.
CHOOSING A ROUTE: Two Pathways to Kiddush Hashem
Returning to the narratives of Nadav and Avihu and Mei Merivah, it seems that when it comes to the conduct of G-d’s “close ones”—G-d’s greatest ambassadors, G-d assures one thing: There will be a sanctification of His Name through them, one way or the other, whether they fulfill G-d’s Will and inspire the nation or whether they publically face the consequences for neglecting to do so.
Evidently, even though G-d expressed “displeasure” at the fact that Moshe and Aharon failed to sanctify His Name, still, through them—their castigation, His Name was able to be sanctified regardless. What emerges then is that there is clearly more than one way to generate a “Kiddush Hashem,” and the way Moshe and Aharon did so, for example, was just not the most favorable way to do so. They could have generated the Kiddush Hashem by fulfilling the Will of G-d, but instead, through their consequences for not doing so, G-d had to create and superimpose that sanctification into the scene, using them as an example.
In the same exact vein, although Nadav and Avihu might’ve been righteous, and while maybe, Hashem’s Name was sanctified through them, it is evident that there was another, more favorable way for them to have created this Kiddush Hashem at the inauguration of the Mishkan. The sanctity of the Mishkan could have been conveyed to the nation if either (1) they witnessed the Kohanim waiting outside it in awe, offering the requisite Korbanos upon authorization, or (2) if they would see someone pass the caution tape and face the consequences for it. Both led to the Kiddush Hashem, and perhaps both paths can be utilized by even the most righteous at times. What is obvious though, is that it would’ve been far better for Nadav and Avihu to have lived Al Kiddush Hashem (through sanctification of Hashem’s Name) rather than to have died Al Kiddush Hashem.
This reality is illustrated well in yet, another strikingly similar and familiar story in the Chumash. In this story, like in ours, we find a righteous individual watch his progeny become a human sacrifice, or at least almost…
ANCIENT TERRITORY: Akeidas Yitzchak
Yes, the tragedy of Aharon’s sons’ untimely deaths also seems to recall the much earlier narrative of Akeidas Yitzchak, the Binding of Yitzchak, where, back in Parshas Vayeira17, Avraham Avinu was commanded by G-d to offer up his son, Yitzchak Avinu at Har HaMoriyah as a Korban. While there are many parallels between the Akeidah and the story of Nadav and Avihu, if one pays close attention to all of the elements of the stories, the contrasts are even more striking. The Akeidah is actually the inverse parallel of the Nadav and Avihu story.
In both stories, we have righteous fathers facing either the reality or at least the conception of losing their children on an altar in the form of a human sacrifice. Both stories actually feature Elevation offerings.18 Moreover, these two righteous fathers seem to pass their tests in accepting the Will of G-d.19 And here is where the immediate similarities end and the contrasts begin.
On the one hand, while Avraham thought he would lose one son, Aharon ended up losing two. While Avraham was forewarned that there would be a human sacrifice, the fate of Aharon’s sons was unforeseen. While Avraham was expecting to take his son’s life himself, it was Hashem Who took the lives of Aharon’s sons. Avraham’s son did nothing to deserve death, whereas Aharon’s sons actually committed some crime and overstepped their bounds. And fascinatingly, while Avraham was expecting to offer up his son, but ended up offering an animal in his place, Aharon was just expecting animals to be offered that day (and Nadav and Avihu were expecting to offer incense), but ultimately, his sons became the offerings. Perhaps the most vital difference though, is the end; Yitzchak’s life was ultimately spared—the human Korban did not actually happen, whereas the lives of Aharon’s sons were not. The Nadav and Avihu story was, in a sense, the Akeidah that actually happened!20, 21
Now, what are we to take away from these inversely parallel stories?
FINAL DESTINATION: Kiddush Hashem—One Way or Another
We began with Nadav and Avihu and arrived at the topic of Kiddush Hashem. Hashem has commanded us, “V’Nikdashti B’Soch B’nei Yisrael”-“and you shall sanctify Me amongst the B’nei Yisrael,”22 telling us that there is a perpetual commandment to create this marvel known as Kiddush Hashem. We find that sometimes, that even means giving up one’s life Al Kiddush Hashem if necessary. Sometimes, Hashem will force His holy heroes into such positions, and yet, at other times, Hashem prefers their lives over their deaths. Each case follows the actions of the individuals and Hashem’s Divine calculations. Chananiyah, Misha’eil and Azariyah were prepared to take their lives for G-d in a fiery furnace in the times of Nevuchadnetzar.23 They were ready to pay what some would refer to as the ultimate sacrifice and go Al Kiddush Hashem24, but Hashem spared them. Yitzchak was as well was ready for his life to be taken Al Kiddush Hashem. In these cases, Hashem allowed them to live and fulfill the same mission of sanctifying His Name through living their lives. That is because, as rule, “Yakar B’Einei Hashem HaMovsah LaChasidav”-“heavy in the eyes of Hashem is the death of His pious ones.”25 Hashem prefers that the righteous people live.
Indeed, for this reason, many explain that the test of Akeidas Yitzchak was a greater test for Avraham than it was for Yitzchak, because while Yitzchak was willing to have his life taken Al Kiddush Hashem in what would have lasted an instant, Avraham was ready to live every day for the rest of his life knowing that he slaughtered his son because G-d had supposedly told him to. Sometimes, living each day Al Kiddush Hashem takes more self-sacrifice than dying Al Kiddush Hashem. That Hashem spared Yitzchak at all demonstrates this preference.
Nadav and Avihu literally gave their souls to G-d, and G-d was sanctified through them, but it could be that although it was their lives He wanted, it was their specifically their lives He wanted, and not necessarily their deaths.
In the end, the idea is that there are various ways at reaching the ultimate destination of Kiddush Hashem. Every action one does can either sanctify G-d directly or trigger a less pleasant but necessary response from Him which will in turn generate the same sanctification, obviously a less ideal means. And while in some situations, Hashem may call on an individual to sanctify His Name through acceptance of justice, maybe even death, He calls upon us more often to just live life, as we may each day, Al Kiddush Hashem.
May we all be Zocheh to sanctify Hashem’s Name in all life situations, be ready to give ourselves over for His sake, and have the privilege of living each day Al Kiddush Hashem, and Hashem’s sanctification should be felt eternally throughout the world with the coming of the Geulah in the days of Moshiach, Bimheirah Biyomeinu! Have a Great Shabbos Parah!
-Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂
- Vayikra 10
- Shemos 29:43
- To Vayikra 10:3 citing Vayikra Rabbah 12:2
- See also Rashi’s comments to Shemos 29:43 where he references our event as well citing Sifra, Vayikra 10:3 and Zevachim 115B.
- Also citing Zevachim 115B
- Brachos 7A
- Bamidbar 20:1-13
- Although Aharon’s exact involvement in the sin is unclear, he is conspicuously faulted in the text there, an interesting, but separate, issue for now.
- See Vayikra 9:23 and Bamidbar 20:6.
- Vayikra 10:1
- Bamidbar 20:9
- Vayikra 10:2
- Bamidbar 20:11
- Bereishis 22
- See Vayikra 9:22 and Bereishis 22:2, 13.
- See Vayikra 10:3 and Bereishis 22:12-15.
- One might notice that the Akeidah is also echoed in textual parallels and then reversed in the story of Iyov whose children’s lives G-d ultimately did take away as He did the lives of Aharon’s sons; See Iyov 1-2.
- The Adeidah is also “reversed” in the aforementioned story of Mei Merivah, as that story, when expressing the consequence of Moshe and Aharon’s sin, Hashem borrows the reverse expression of the positive consequence for Avraham’s triumph at the Akeidah. At the Akeidah, Hashem declared: “…Ya’an Asheir Asisa Es HaDavar HaZeh V’Lo Chasachta Es Bincha…”-“…as a consequence [because] that you have done this matter, and you did not withhold your son…” [Bereishis 22:16].
Compare these words to Hashem’s declaration at Mei Merivah: “…Ya’an Lo He’emantem Bi L’Hadisheini L’Einei B’nei Yisrael Lachein Lo Savi’u Es HaKahal HaZeh El HaAretz Asheir Nasati Lahem”-“…As a consequence [because] that you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me to the eyes of the B’nei Yisrael, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the land which I have given them” [Bamidbar 20:12].
- Vayikra 22:32
- Daniel 3:17-18
- See Toras Kohanim 22:137
- Tehillim 116:15