Nadav and Avihu: The Real Sin of Aaron's Sons | Aleph Beta

Why Did God Reject Nadav And Avihu?

Understanding The Real Sin Of Aaron's Two Sons

Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

How do we understand the sin of Aaron's two sons, Nadav and Avihu, and why they were killed for it?

In this week's parsha, we see the sudden and disturbing death of Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, right after being appointed the priests of the Tabernacle. Curiously, when we explore this text more closely, we can find hints — parallel themes, shared language — to an earlier Biblical story: the story of original sin in the Garden of Eden. Is the Bible hinting at some meaningful connection between that sin and the sin of Nadav and Avihu? And if so, what could it be?

Join Rabbi Fohrman as he unearths the real story behind why Aaron's sons died, and how these Biblical parallels deepen our understanding of what was the real sin of Nadav and Avihu – one that we must also learn to avoid in our lives, even today.


This is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Parshat Shemini. Before we begin, I want to let you let you know that the idea that I want to share with you here was suggested to me by a student of mine, Jonathan Grossman. I want to give credit to him for what I think is a fascinating idea. Let's jump right in and take a look.

Nadav and Avihu: Who Were the Sons of Aaron the High Priest?

This week's Parsha contains the very puzzling story of the death of Aaron's two sons – Nadav and Avihu, just at the culminating moment of the dedication of the new mishkan, the new tabernacle. Amid celebration, these two children brought an incense offering into the mishkan before God, and were immediately struck dead by a divine fire that consumed them. It's a mysterious story and the Torah does not give that much more explanation other than suggesting that the fire that they brought was a fire that they were not commanded to bring.

Well, today I will add to the mystery a bit, by pointing out what I think are some very intriguing parallels between this story and another very famous story in chumash. The Torah seems to be saying that if you really want to be understanding the story A, you need to understand it in reference to Story B. I want to point out a number of elements in the story; and then, let's play this game together – where have we heard all of these before?

A Closer Look at the Sin of Nadav and Avihu

Element A, the idea of time. Vayihi bayom hashmini, "This all happened on the eighth day." There were seven days of dedication of the new mishkan and on the eighth day, the culminating moment of that dedication, is when this tragedy struck.

Element number 2, the idea of blessing. Chapter 9, verse 22. Vayisa Aharon et-yadav el-haam vayivarchem, and Aaron picked up his hands and blessed the people. After that, vayavo Mosheh v'Aharon vayivarchu et-haam, Moshe and Aaron together, they blessed the people.

Element 3, the sin itself. Vayikchu benei-Aharon Nadav vaAvihu, the children of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu; ish machtato, each took pans; vayitnu bahen esh, they put fire in the pans; vayasimu aleiha ketoret, and put incense; vayakrivu lifnei Hashem esh zarah, and they brought before God a foreign fire; asher lo tzivah otam, that they were not commanded to bring. Where else on the Torah do we have a sin that’s characterized with these two verbs, vayikchu, vayitnu – 'taking' and 'giving?' A sin that is also characterized by doing something, quote, “asher lo tzivah otam”, something that quote, ”God did not command them to do”.

If we keep on reading about vatatze esh melifnei Hashem vatochal otam, fire came out from the mishkan and consumed them. This other sin that we are speaking of in the Torah also has to do with consuming, vatochal, which of course literally means eating. Vayamutu lifnei Hashem, the children of Aaron died before God. That other sin also has to do with dying.

After the children of Aaron die, their brothers are told to come into the mishkan and to carry out the corpses of the deceased. And when they are told to do so, they are told to carry them out in their clothes, vayisaum bekutanotam. The particular word used to describe their clothes, kutanotam. Where else is kutonet used - in the aftermath of a sin - to describe clothes? And where else, in the aftermath of the sin, are those who sinned taken mechutz lamachaneh – outside, so to speak, of the camp?

So let's add up all these elements and ask ourselves, "Where have we heard all of this before?"

Sinful Connections to Nadav and Avihu

The answer seems to be, way back in the beginning. It's accurately the very first sin ever recounted in the Torah – the sin of the Tree of Knowledge. It's interesting that right before Parshat Shemini, we hear about the seven days in which the temple was dedicated in which we were told that Aaron the Priest was to sit at the doorway to the mishkan, night and day, for seven days. They weren't supposed to do anything except, ushemartem et mishmeret, just to watch over the mishkan. Where else do we have that kind of idea – seven days, not doing anything? Just watching over?

Seems to evoke the memories of the Sabbath, ushemartem et hashabbat, watch over the Sabbath. The Sabbath also is something where we sit and which we don't do. There was a kind of Sabbath here on Parshat Shemini, and after the Sabbath there was an eighth day. But of course, there was a first Sabbath – the Sabbath of creation. For six days, God created the world. On the sixth day, man was created. And t the end of those sixth day God blessed man. Then there was the Sabbath.

And then what was there? Right after the Sabbath narrative – what is the next narrative? The next narrative is the Tree of Knowledge story. Now there is a comment by our sages that Adam and Eve actually sinned on the sixth day. But it's interesting that the Torah records that sin right after it talks about Shabbat. It's almost as if this text is presenting this as another day – a day on which people eat that which they were commanded not to eat from. That indeed is the language of the verse. Hamin haetz asher tziuiticha levilti achal mimenu achalta, "Have you indeed eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat from?" God says. And look at the verbs that describe the sin itself, vatikach mipiryo vatochal vatiten gam l'ishah imah vayochal, "and she took from its fruit and she ate; she gave to her husband and he ate too."

But we remember those verbs, don't we? Vatikach, – 'taking'; vatiten, 'giving'; vatochal – consuming, eating. The difference is, with the tree of knowledge the people consumed the fruit of the tree. But in the story of this week's Parshat, the people were the ones who were consumed.

Death, of course, comes to the children of Aaron. But death also came to the children of man in the Tree of Knowledge story. God promises that the day that you eat from the tree of knowledge, you will die. You won't actually die, but you’ll become mortal, you’ll become beings that do die. Death follows in the wake ofeach sin; and of course, exile follows as well - being taken outside of the camp. In one case, the camp is the mishkan. In the first case of course, the camp was the garden, the garden of Eden. Adam and Eve, wearing new clothes, minted for them by God Himself, closely described as 'cloaks' – as kutanot – are told that they must leave the Garden, never to return.

What are we to make of all these parallels? What is the Torah telling us?

Understanding the Real Sin of Aaron's Son

The Torah seems to be saying, that to understand the story of the death of the children of Aaron, we need to understand the process through which death came into the world in the first place. We need to understand the very first sin of all – the story of the Tree of Knowledge.

In the story of the Tree of Knowledge, God had just made a world for us. A whole environment for the benefit of people – a Universe, a Solar System, a planet that mankind could call home. God had done that in six days, rested on the seventh; but on the eighth, something went wrong.

In this week's Parshah, mankind on His planet finds himself all alone. So, he makes a little home for a God, a place that God could call home in our world, in our planet. After building this world for God, we rest for seven days. But on the eighth day, something went wrong.

The possibility that I am suggesting to you here, of course, is that the story of the death of the two sons of Aaron mimics in a certain way the story of mortality coming to the very first two people, Adam and Eve. It is almost as if this is another Tree of Knowledge story.

But if it is, it makes us wonder conceptually how do these two stories relate to each other. It seems like the Torah is setting up the story of Nadav and Avihu as being a kind of 'Tree of Knowledge' story; but why? What is there about these two stories that’s similar?

Avoiding the Sin of Nadav and Avihu in Our Own Lives

Allow me to suggest a kind of theory, and I’d like you to think about as well. Perhaps the Torah here is giving you a window into understanding the 'Tree of Knowledge' story. It's saying that if you really want to understand what is going on in the 'Tree of Knowledge' story, look at how that story reflects itself in the book of Leviticus.

The first 'Tree of Knowledge' story takes place in the little apartment that God makes for Himself in our world, in the Garden of Eden. The second 'Tree of Knowledge' story takes place in a little apartment that we make for God in our world, the Mishkan. And perhaps that whenever it is that you are living in God's world, a great temptation arises. A temptation which comes about, ironically, by being so close to God: Here we are, so close to God. How do we take that last elusive step to really be embraced by our Creator?

Listen to the way the snake puts it in the 'Tree of Knowledge' story. "Eat from the one tree that God puts on limits because it has Divine knowledge. Viheyitem k'Elokim yodei tov vara. You’ll eat it and you will become like God who knows good and evil." So we eat the tree under the delusion that if we only eat from it, it will give us the lasting connection to God that we desire. We would cling to God and truly become God-like. But that's not the way it works. We become God-like by listening to what God wants from you, and by living alone, the part of the garden that He restricts you from. Ironically, sometimes you come closest to God when you back away. When you honor the restrictions He places, the distance that God insists must be there between the Creator and the created.

And later on, in the mishkan, the same temptation takes hold. You're so close to God, what's the last thing you can do to try to truly become Godly? God's presence is a cloud, hovering over the ark. There's another cloud in the mishkan – the cloud of the incense coming from the incense holder. Nadav and Avihu take the incense and bring it in a way that God did not command – merging the incense cloud that humans make, merging that cloud with God's cloud; an attempt to finally, fully become embraced by God.

But that's not how you become embraced by God. You have to let God be God; and listen to what God wants. Both 'Tree of Knowledge' stories are about the seductive temptation to take the final step to cling to God in a way that God has not commanded. Both stories are about a failed attempt to achieve the heights of Godliness, something which ironically we achieve sometimes by listening to a restriction that seems to keep us away from God; but that in fact, gives us the connection to Him that we truly seek.

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