From HaGaon Rav Zevadia HaCohen Shlit”a, The Head of the Batei Din in Tel Aviv
(translated by our dear friend Rav Daniel Levy Shlit”a, Leeds UK)
Explaining Why Hashem Punished Nadav And Avihu So Harshly When The Mishkan Was Inaugurated
This Shabbat we shall read the completion of the seven days of inauguration and the commencement of the offering of the sacrifices in the Mishkan. The joy was immense as explained in the parasha: “Moshe and Aron came to the Ohel Moed, and when they came out, they blessed the people. Hashem’s glory was then revealed to all the people. Fire came forth from before Hashem and consumed the burnt offering and the choice parts on the altar. When the people saw this, they raised their voices in praise, and threw themselves on their faces” (Vayikra 9:23-24). Then a calamity occurred, which dampened the joy that was in the Ohel Moed, namely the tragic death of two of Aron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. As it states in the passuk, “Aron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire pan, placed fire on it, and then incense on it. They offered it before Hashem, [but it] was unauthorised fire, which [Hashem] had not instructed them [to offer]. Fire came forth from before Hashem, and it consumed them, so that they died before Hashem” (Vayikra 10:1-2).
This is astonishing, why did Hashem give such a harsh punishment to Aron’s sons specifically on this joyous day when the entire people were blessed by Moshe and Aron. Fire went out from Heaven in view of the people, consuming the sacrifices on the first day of their offerings. Why didn’t Hashem delay the punishment to the next day in order not to dampen the joy of the people on this great day?
In order to understand this we will preface an analogy from Harav HaGaon Rav Avraham P’tal ztz”l (the father-in-law of Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef ztz”l) from his work Vayomer Avraham on the Torah. There he relates about a great king, who saw the cramp living condition of his people. He decided to build a new modern city in a great forest in his land. He immediately summoned the best engineers and architects in the world, who then sat and designed the new city with the best up-to-date inventions in the world. After this the king summoned a team of contractors who commenced the construction of the new city. After five years of devoted work the new city was complete, with wonderful houses, wide roads, well stocked gardens and spacious communal buildings for the inhabitants. After the new city was advertised, the inhabitants of the kingdom swooped in and populated all the new buildings.
The king came to visit the new city. He asked the leaders of the city, “What else is lacking in the new city?” The leaders praised the king and all of his work, but they argued that there is still lacking hospitals and doctors who will serve the inhabitants of the city. The king was responsive to their request and immediately began to build a state-of-the-art medical facility, and he decided to appoint the best professor in the kingdom. After six months, the hospital was complete, and the king announced the opening of the new grand hospital. All the inhabitants of the city, it’s nobles and ministers of the kingdom were invited to a grand ceremony and the honourable guest was the esteemed professor, the most eminent professor in the kingdom who would head the hospital.
During the grand opening ceremony, the king and his ministers delivered speeches, and at the conclusion of the evening the professor was honoured to say a few words. The professor stood to his feet and announced before the king, the ministers and the inhabitants of the city, that he is prepared to heal momentarily for free any sick person who is present and he seeks no payment in return. Immediately, one of the inhabitants arose and said that from the time he arrived at the ceremony his head has been hurting and that he needs medical attention for his painful head. The professor invited him to the podium, and in front of everyone gave him a tablet for his headache, but to everyone’s astonishment the sick person fell and dropped dead immediately after swallowing the tablet.
The king wanted answers why he had done this, since after all, he only had a headache? They ran to the doctor and he immediately explained, “My master the king! I saw that the great gathering was in my honour, I heard the people whilst rejoicing, that they were saying that now we can do whatever we wish. We may eat and drink everything, we’ll go wild and have nothing to fear, since we have a doctor in the city, and he will cure us from all illnesses. I was immediately concerned that the inhabitants won’t look after their health and that they will behave as they wish arguing that they have a first-class doctor who will heal all their illnesses and ailments. This will be a bad situation and unbefitting. Therefore I did this, I took this patient, who I saw was at the end of his life and I gave him this tablet that will bring about his demise. With the intention that the people will realise that the doctor won’t always be able to help them. And so they will look after their health appropriately.
The analogy is that Am Yisrael saw that there are sacrifices brought in the Mishkan, and there were those that said, now we may sin and do whatever we wish and the maximum we will have to do is bring a sacrifice that will atone for us, because there is a Mishkan, cohanim and sacrifices. Therefore Hashem punished Aron’s sons specifically on that day, to show them that here is no immunity for anyone and that if someone sins they will immediately be punished. Even though there is a Mishkan, cohanim and sacrifices, and even if they are Aron’s sons. Everyone, whether small or large in standing, shall be careful with Hashem’s Honour and not rely on sacrifices, since these are only for when a person sins inadvertently.
May we merit that Hashem will plant in our hearts His love and fear, to fulfil His will with a complete heart. Amen.