This week’s Torah portion begins with celebration and excitement but quickly turns tragic. The scene opens with the 8th and final day of the inauguration of the Tabernacle. Aharon, the high priest, and the Jewish people are called upon to bring sacrifices.
A fire comes forth “from before God” and consumes what is on the altar and the people raise their voices in praise realizing that their sins, especially that of the Golden Calf are forgiven.
And then tragedy strikes.
The holy sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, the great priests who were supposed to be the ultimate successors of Moshe and Aharon bring what the Torah calls a “strange fire” before God which they had not been commanded to bring. God does not approve and a fire comes down from the heavens consuming them, bringing them to an unfortunate end and spoiling a really fun day.
The commentaries differ as to exactly what the sin of the sons of Aharon were and why this was a “strange fire.”
According to one approach, the problem was that the two entered the Sanctuary drunk. Another opinion is that it was the fact that they chose to not get married and have children. Another source identifies their downfall with their deciding a Torah law in the presence of Moses and Aaron, without asking the opinion of their teacher, and, yet, another opinion states that they had made a comment when they saw Moshe and Aaron walking along and all of Israel behind them "When will these two elders die so that you and I will lead this generation."
Though, these commentaries differ on what exactly was the reason for their deaths, there seems to be a unifying thread in their answer, a picture emerging of their personalities and what went wrong.
Nadav and Avihu were great men. So great that when Moshe was consoling his brother he told him “now I see that they were greater than you or I." And they had a burning desire to be even greater, even holier. But they didn’t know how. At least not within the prescribed methods that were set out for them by the Torah.
So they invented their own ways. Drink wine and enter the Sanctuary in a higher level of conciseness. Refrain from marriage. Push Moshe and Aharon out of the way. Their emotional desire, or the “strange fire” for greatness blinded them from realizing that they were going about in an overly zealous fashion that God did not approve of.
In a sense, it is easy to fall into the Nadav and Avihu way of thinking. When we find a great cause or movement that sweeps us up and gets us emotionally charged, often the finite details of a healthy spiritual journey become trivial in comparison. We search for ways to “save the world” but allow the people around us to get overlooked. We know what we are ready to die for, but forget what we are supposed to live for. We become so swept away in the bigger picture we lose sight of the little things that make it all stick. It is the “strange fire” of Nadav and Avihu.
The Torah teaches a slow and steady process to find greatness. Patience and consistency are key. And every law prescribed by God, every act and every motion, whether it excites us or not, is in a very deep way penetrating our inner essence, affecting our Neshama, and guiding us towards becoming better people.