Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Shemini #3: In Defense of Nadav and Avihu (AKA Conspiracy Theory)

I was reading parshat Shemini, and I think it possible that Nadav and Avihu didn't sin. כל שאומר נדב ואביהוא חטא אינו אלא טועה.

Why would we think they sinned? Well, the psukim (Vayikra 10:1-2) state:

וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי-אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ, קְטֹרֶת; וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי ה, אֵשׁ זָרָה--אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה, אֹתָם.
וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי ה, וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם; וַיָּמֻתוּ, לִפְנֵי ה.
"And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them.
And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.

A few points.
1) The pasuk refers to אֵשׁ זָרָה, "strange fire." This seems negative.
2) The pasuk refers to the fire, or their actions, with the words, אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה, אֹתָם, "which He had not commanded them." Thus it seems they were not doing what Hashem wanted or commanded.
3) The result seems to be punishment from Hashem: וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי ה, וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם; וַיָּמֻתוּ, לִפְנֵי ה.

Yet, if we look at the midrash, Chazal give more than 12 different sins that Nadav and Avihu did to merit the punishment. For example, they performed the service after drinking; they ruled halacha before their teacher Moshe; they said regarding Aharon and Moshe - "when will these two die and we will replace them"; they did not marry because they did not consider any match on their level. What about the plain meaning of the verse? It explicitly mentions the sin!

I would suggest that perhaps they did not sin.
1) Regarding the אֵשׁ זָרָה, the strange fire, recall that in context a fire went forth from before Hashem. Thus, אֵשׁ זָרָה need not be negative. It is a needed adjective to distinguish one type of fire the other other.

It may have been a work accident. Consider the context. While the perek starts with Nadav and Avihu bringing this אֵשׁ זָרָה, the perek is a Christian division system. The beginning of Shlishi actually is earlier, and so this should be joined to the preceding narrative.

The preceding psukim (Vayikra 9:22-24) state:

וַיִּשָּׂא אַהֲרֹן אֶת-יָדָו אֶל-הָעָם, וַיְבָרְכֵם; וַיֵּרֶד, מֵעֲשֹׂת הַחַטָּאת וְהָעֹלָה--וְהַשְּׁלָמִים.
וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן, אֶל-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, וַיֵּצְאוּ, וַיְבָרְכוּ אֶת-הָעָם; וַיֵּרָא כְבוֹד-ה, אֶל-כָּל-הָעָם.
וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ, מִלִּפְנֵי ה, וַתֹּאכַל עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, אֶת-הָעֹלָה וְאֶת-הַחֲלָבִים; וַיַּרְא כָּל-הָעָם וַיָּרֹנּוּ, וַיִּפְּלוּ עַל-פְּנֵיהֶם.
"And Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people, and blessed them; and he came down from offering the sin-offering, and the burnt-offering, and the peace-offerings.
And Moses and Aaron went into the tent of meeting, and came out, and blessed the people; and the glory of the LORD appeared unto all the people.
And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and consumed upon the altar the burnt-offering and the fat; and when all the people saw it, they shouted, and fell on their faces."

So this fire that consumed Nadav and Avihu which went forth from before Hashem was not the first in context.

I suggest that perhaps this was just a work accident. Here a fire came from before Hashem to eat the korbanot. This really impressed the people. It was miraculous, and their response was to shout (or sing) and fall on their faces in astonishment.

What then was the normal course of actions, for the people to be so impressed here?

Similarly, Eliyahu on Har HaCarmel has a showdown with the priests of Baal - a contest in which they both bring korbanot, and they will see which deity will consume the respective offerings. Even after Eliyahu douses the sacrifice with water, a fire comes from Hashem and consumes the sacrifice. Meanwhile, no fire consumes that of Baal. Says the midrash, one priest was hidden in the altar to light the korban and make it appear that Baal burned the korban, but he was bitten by a snake and died.

In general I would expect that sacrifices would be lit by a normal fire, and they would claim this was a proxy for the diety and the God was consuming the offering. For example, the flames of the Moloch idolatry to which people sacrificed their children was not supernatural. Rather they lit the fires themselves.

To some extent, in Jewish practice, they are supposed to light the wood, but in addition there was a heavenly flame that consumed the sacrifices.

At any rate, it would therefore not be crazy for Nadav and Avihu, at the very beginning of their service (this was after all at the inauguration of the Mishkan) to expect that a similar thing was to happen. They went in with an אֵשׁ זָרָה, a strange fire, that is one not from before Hashem. They did this because they thought this was the way the offering of incense was to be done.

However, as in 2), this was not what Hashem had commanded. This was not Hashem's plan, but they thought that this was what they were supposed to be doing. So they went in with their *foreign* fire to light the incense.

However, as we saw earlier, Hashem was impressing the nation, by sending forth his own fire to consume the sacrifices. Just as He consumed the other sacrifices, he sent fire to consume the incense. (3)

Nadav and Avihu got in the way of this heavenly fire, because they were bringing the normal fire at this time and did not expect to encounter a holy fire, and they died. That is, it was a work accident.

Moshe's consolation to Aharon reflects the full story, inclusive of the first portion. That is, not only does he say "בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ," "Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified," referring to Nadav and Avihu, but further he says וְעַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד, "and before all the people I will be glorified." This latter part refers to the fire consuming the other korbanot, and the people singing and falling on their faces.

Couldn't Hashem have missed had He wanted to? Who knows? But perhaps then we could bring in one of the sins listed by Chazal; because of some sin, they did not merit Hashem stopping the flame from touching them.

Note that while I think this approach shows promise, I have another idea which recommends itself more, which I hope to discuss in a later post.

There is a similar idea voiced in Midrash Rabba, about Nadav and Avihu being innocent. The verse states:
וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אַהֲרֹן, הוּא אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר ה לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ, וְעַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד; וַיִּדֹּם, אַהֲרֹן.
"Then Moses said unto Aaron: 'This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.' And Aaron held his peace."

When did Hashem speak this. And what is meant by הוּא? The words Moshe states?

The Midrash explains: Moshe told Aharon. On Har Sinai Hashem told me that in the future I would consecrate the Mishkan and with a great man I would consecrate it, and I (Moshe) though perhaps me or you (Aharon) the house would be consecrated, and now your two sons are greater than me or you. Once Aharon heard that his sons feared Heaven he was silent and received reward for his silence. How do we know he was silent? For the verse states וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן. Where do we see he received reward for his silence? Since he merited that Hashem's words were directed solely to him, as it states (pasuk 8) וַיְדַבֵּר ה, אֶל-אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר. This is what is states (Tehillim 19:9) פִּקּוּדֵי יְהוָה יְשָׁרִים, מְשַׂמְּחֵי-לֵב, "The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;"

In context, it seems that this means that the mitzvot of Hashem are right, and since Aharon got this directed and associated specifically with him his heart was gladdenned, and that is how it explained later in in the same midrash. Indeed, Rabbi Yitzchak started the whole section off with a citation from Yirmiyahu 15:16:
נִמְצְאוּ דְבָרֶיךָ, וָאֹכְלֵם, וַיְהִי דבריך (דְבָרְךָ) לִי, לְשָׂשׂוֹן וּלְשִׂמְחַת לְבָבִי: כִּי-נִקְרָא שִׁמְךָ עָלַי, ה אֱלֹקֵי צְבָקוֹת.
"Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and Thy words were unto me a joy and the rejoicing of my heart; because Thy name was called on me, O LORD God of hosts."

Specifically, this verse is being taken to mean that Hashem's words were a joy to Aharon's heart when His name was called on him (Aharon) when the words were addressed specifically to him.

However, I think there is something more to this midrash.
פִּקּוּדֵי יְהוָה יְשָׁרִים, מְשַׂמְּחֵי-לֵב - those upon whom Hashem was פוקד, those destroyed by Hashem, that is, Nadav and Avihu, Moshe tells Aharon, were יְשָׁרִים; this information is מְשַׂמְּחֵי-לֵב, it gladdens the heart of Aharon to hear that his sons here yesharim, and feared Heaven. Thus the verse is a prooftext for the other idea in that midrash.

Indeed, R Yitzchak's opening verse can be seen in this light as well:
נִמְצְאוּ דְבָרֶיךָ, וָאֹכְלֵם, וַיְהִי דבריך (דְבָרְךָ) לִי, לְשָׂשׂוֹן וּלְשִׂמְחַת לְבָבִי: כִּי-נִקְרָא שִׁמְךָ עָלַי, ה אֱלֹקֵי צְבָקוֹת.
Your words, Hashem, which you spoke to Moshe on Har Sinai about consecrating the Mishkan with the death of a great tzadik or tzadikim, were found to be true, and they were consumed. And Your words which Moshe told me about their being righteous were to me as a joy and the rejoicing of my heart, (and as a result) Your name was called to me with the specific command about not doing service while drunk.

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