2003Chapters 9 and 10 of Leviticus - the beginning of our Parashah - tell a terrible story within a wonderful story. It is the eighth day of the ordination of the priests, Aaron and his sons. On this day, the priests will offer the sacrifice and the presence of the Holy One will come to reside in the Tabernacle in full view of all the people Israel. But something goes wrong, and Nadav and Avihu, Aaron's two eldest sons, are struck down before the holy altar, consumed with fire by the Holy Presence. What happened?
Leviticus Chapter 9, Summary
Lev 9:1-4 On the eighth day of the ordination, Moses calls Aaron and his sons, and gives them the instructions for the sacrifice, and tells them that God will appear to them this day.
9:5 Aaron and his sons gather at the Tent of Meeting, and the whole community assembles.
9:6-7 Moses tells Aaron to offer the sacrifices and make expiation first for himself and then for the people.
9:8-14 Aaron and his sons offer the sin offering and the burnt offering for themselves
9:15-21 Aaron and his sons offer the people's offering
9:22 Aaron blesses the people and steps down
9:23-24 Moses and Aaron enter the Tent of Meeting, come out, and then the Presence of the Eternal appears before the people. Fire comes from before the Eternal and consumes the offering upon the altar. The people fall down upon their faces.
Midrash Sifra states that, after all the sacrifices had been performed correctly, and the Holy Presence had still not arrived, Aaron was afraid that God was punishing him for the Golden Calf, so Moses went in with him and begged for mercy, and at once the Presence descended upon Israel.
Now Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu each took his own censer put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which [God] had not enjoined upon them. And fire went forth from before the Eternal and consumed them; thus they died before the Lord.
Your Torah Navigator
1. What is "strange fire"?
2. What are Nadav and Avihu trying to do?
3. What do you suppose it means, "each takes his own censer"?
4. The wording of 10:2 is exactly the same as 9:24 - "Va - teitzei eish milifnei ha-Shem vatochal" - "Fire went forth from before the Eternal and consumed...." Could they have come before the altar just as Moses and Aaron brought the Presence there?
Two generations; two sets of brothers. Aaron and Moses have been a team from the beginning. Here's their biggest project - the Tabernacle that will serve as the model of worship for Israel even until our own day. God is supposed to appear; but doesn't, even though Aaron has done everything right. The first thing he thinks to do is get Moses, and consult with him. How are Nadav and Avihu different? "Each man took his own censer." They didn't consult, either one another, or Moses and Aaron. They took it upon themselves to go into the Tabernacle and, quite possibly, ended up at the Holy of Holies just when Moses and Aaron were blessing the people, and got in the way of the Presence. What does this teach us? Moses and Aaron are a model of cooperative leadership. They are forever holding one another up. One's shortcoming is mitigated by the other's strength. They rescue each other. Nadav and Avihu are not equipped to rescue one another, so when they come to a dangerous impasse, it kills them. Lack of communication is deadly to shared leadership.
Prepared by Rabbi Leslie Bergson, Jewish Chaplain and Hillel Director, the Claremont Colleges.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Shemini at MyJewishLearning.com.