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The Untold "Backstory" Of Nadav And Avihu

Making Sense Of Nadav And Avihu's Death


Beth Lesch

Writer

The death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, is one of the most tragic and mystifying stories in the entire Torah. They were bringing a fiery sacrifice to God – and God struck them dead.

Most people who study this story tend to get stuck on the question: “What did they do wrong?? I thought sacrificing to God was a good thing!”

But there’s one other question that gets much less attention — but is just as important: Why Nadav and Avihu? What motivated them to pick up their fire pans on that day and rush towards the Mishkan? You don’t see anyone else trying to do that.

Does the Torah offer us an answer? Surprisingly, it does. To find it, you have to study Nadav and Avihu’s backstory

What, you didn’t know that they had a backstory? Few people realize that Parshat Shemini is not the first time that we meet Nadav and Avihu. We met them in the Book of Exodus, where they had a life-changing experience — an experience that, ultimately, led them to their deaths.

Join Beth Lesch as she explores Nadav and Avihu’s backstory — and cautions us against repeating Nadav and Avihu’s fatal mistake.

To watch the ''Why Did God Reject Nadab And Abihu?'' video course, click here.

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Transcript

Hi, I’m Beth Lesch. This is Parshat Shemini. You are watching Aleph Beta.

The Tragic and Mystifying Story of Nadav and Avihu's Death

The death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu – I’ve always found this to be one of the most tragic, and most mystifying, stories in the entire Torah. It’s the dedication ceremony for the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, and these two pious men — they bring an offering before God — and for that, they are struck dead on the spot, consumed by God’s fire.

Now, most people who study this story tend to get stuck on the question: “What did they do wrong?? I thought sacrificing to God was a good thing!” Rabbi Fohrman addresses that question in a previous Parshat Shemini video and offers a fascinating answer. But there’s one other question that gets much less attention — but is just as important. Why Nadav and Avihu? What motivated them to pick up their fire pans on that day and rush towards the Mishkan? You don’t see anyone else trying to do that.

Why Were Aaron's Sons Consumed by Fire?

I scoured the text, desperate to find some clue, anything that could provide an answer. But the whole account is so abrupt:

וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי-אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ

Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, took their fire-pans

וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ קְטֹרֶת

and they put fire in them and they placed incense on them

וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֵשׁ זָרָה--אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם.

and they offered before God a foreign fire that God had not commanded.

וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה

And a fire came out from before God

וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם וַיָּמֻתוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה

and it devoured them and they died before God.

The text doesn’t tell us why they did it. But then it occurred to me:

This isn’t the only story about Nadav and Avihu. There’s one other story. One other time, in the entire Five Books of Moses, when we hear an account in which Nadav and Avihu are prime players.

And when I looked at that other story - it was a total ‘a-ha’ moment. If we want to understand what motivated Nadav and Avihu, we have to know their “backstory.”

Nadav and Avihu’s “Backstory” in the Bible

Turn back to Exodus 24, and let’s set the scene. The nation is standing at the base of Mount Sinai, and God calls to Moses and tells him to come up the mountain. Except that’s not all that He says:

עֲלֵה אֶל-יְהוָה אַתָּה

Come up to God, you

וְאַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא וְשִׁבְעִים מִזִּקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל...

and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel...

Did you remember that part? I didn’t. I was pretty sure it was just Moses who climbed Mount Sinai — but there were these other people there, too. And Nadav and Avihu are singled out by name.

There’s a brief interruption where Moses commands these ne’arim, young men to offer shelamim sacrifices — and then Moses heads up the mountain with Aaron, Nadav, Avihu, and the seventy elders by his side.

What do you suppose it was like for them? How do you think they felt? If it were me, fear would be front and center, no doubt – but fear wouldn’t be the only emotion. I would also be feeling pretty excited. I am being asked to accompany Moses, to approach the Creator of the Universe. What a dream!!

And it seems that it was a profound spiritual experience.

וַיִּרְאוּ אֵת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

They saw the God of Israel

וְתַחַת רַגְלָיו כְּמַעֲשֵׂה לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר וּכְעֶצֶם הַשָּׁמַיִם לָטֹהַר.

and under His feet was like a brickwork of sapphire, as clear as the essence of the heavens.

They saw God, whatever that means, and then:

וַיֶּחֱזוּ אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים וַיֹּאכְלוּ וַיִּשְׁתּוּ.

They beheld God and they ate and drank.

Most commentators say that they’re eating the sacrifices, those shelamim from earlier in the chapter. What do you suppose they’re feeling right now? They’re standing before this vision of God, feasting on the mountain. It must have been a moment of intoxicating joy. Suffice it to say, this is probably the most spiritual experience that they’ve ever had in their lives. So... what happens next?

God calls to Moses and says: Moses, come up to the top of the mountain. Wait a second – just Moses? That’s right. No Aaron. No Nadav and Avihu. No elders.

Their rarified spiritual experience is stopped in its tracks. They are to stay right where they are, on the landing, halfway up Sinai.

You can imagine what it must have been like for them, standing there, looking up, watching Moses climb higher and higher. The text tells us that a cloud covered the mountain for six days, and then, בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, on the seventh day, the climax: God calls to Moses — and Moses enters God’s cloud and disappears from view. Moses is going to receive the Torah from God! And Nadav and Avihu are still watching from the landing.

All they can see is God’s glory. The text tells us:

וּמַרְאֵה כְּבוֹד יְהוָה

And the appearance of the glory of God

כְּאֵשׁ אֹכֶלֶת בְּרֹאשׁ הָהָר לְעֵינֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.

was like a fire devouring the top of the mountain, in the eyes of the children of Israel.

That is the backstory of Nadav and Avihu. And now, I believe, we are ready to go back to the story of the dedication ceremony and read it through new eyes.

Parallels to Nadav and Avihu's Story

Leviticus chapter 8. It’s been almost a year since that day described back in Exodus 24, and the nation is still encamped around Mount Sinai. What have the people been doing for all this time? They haven’t been sitting on their tushes. They’ve been building the Mishkan! Chopping wood and dyeing curtains. And finally, they’ve completed the work, and it’s time to put the Mishkan into use.

It’s here that we re-meet our friends Nadav and Avihu, and this time, they’re being inaugurated as kohanim, priests. Listen to what happens in this ceremony. I think a lot of it is going to remind you of Exodus 24.

First, Moses brings all of these sacrifices.

That’s interesting. When was the last time that anyone in the Torah brought sacrifices?

It was that day in Exodus 24, almost a year ago, when the ne’arim brought shelamim sacrifices. In fact, that was the very first public sacrifice in the history of the children of Israel, and this — today — is the second.

Now keep reading. What happened with the sacrifices?

וַיִּזְרֹק מֹשֶׁה אֶת-הַדָּם עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ

Moses sprinkled the blood on the altar

There was blood sprinkled on the altar in Exodus 24, too. It was by the shelamim sacrifice. Ok, so blood sprinkling is admittedly a part of pretty much any sacrifice ceremony. But who was doing the blood sprinkling?

וַיִּקַּח מֹשֶׁה חֲצִי הַדָּם, וַיָּשֶׂם בָּאַגָּנֹת; וַחֲצִי הַדָּם, זָרַק עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ

Moses took half of the blood and he put it in basins, and the other half he sprinkled on the altar

In both stories, it was Moses sprinkling the blood. You might think that’s a pretty common occurrence… but it’s not. Moses almost never dirties his hands with sacrifices. That’s a job for the kohanim. These are the only two times in the entire Torah when Moses sprinkles blood.

And then Moses tells Aaron and his sons: Take the sacrifices and eat the meat at the petach ohel moed, the Mishkan’s entrance.

Eating sacrifices? While standing at the opening of the Mishkan, before God’s presence?

Nadav and Avihu, they had stood halfway up Mount Sinai, and they saw God, and they feasted before God’s presence; they ate sacrifices.

So that’s a cool connection, maybe, but it’s really just one link. Sacrifices here, sacrifices there. Is there anything more? More connections between the dedication ceremony and Exodus 24?

Well, what happens next? Moses gives them an instruction: Wait here in the courtyard — for seven days.

What else happened for seven days?

For six day, Nadav and Avihu had stood on the landing of Sinai, left behind, watching Moses climb the mountain. And on the seventh day, Moses entered God’s cloud and disappeared from sight. Seven days here, seven days there.

And now, at the dedication ceremony: beyom hashemini, after the seven days of waiting, there are more sacrifices — shelamim sacrifices… the very same kind of sacrifice the young men brought earlier, back in Exodus 24. In case you were wondering, shelamim sacrifices are very rare in the Torah; we almost never hear about them.

And… we haven’t even gotten to the really good stuff yet.

The sacrifices are done, and Aaron follows Moses into the Mishkan. When they come out, something miraculous happens:

וַיֵּרָא כְבוֹד-יְהוָה אֶל-כָּל-הָעָם

The glory of God appeared to all the people

It’s not often that the glory of God is visible. Actually, it’s exceedingly rare. What does that remind you of?? When was the last time that anybody actually saw kevod Hashem, God’s glory? It was almost a year ago. It was in Exodus 24.

וּמַרְאֵה כְּבוֹד יְהוָה כְּאֵשׁ אֹכֶלֶת

And the appearance of the glory of God was like a devouring fire

Interesting, it looked like an aish ochelet, a devouring fire. Well, there’s a devouring fire here, too:

וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה וַתֹּאכַל עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ

A fire came out from before God, devouring atop the altar

Why Did Nadav and Avihu Die?

Parallel after parallel, it’s the very same language. Moshe sprinkling blood on the altar, eating sacrifices in the presence of God, seven days, shelamim, the glory of God that everyone can see, a devouring fire…

You know what I think? I think that you and I aren’t the only ones who noticed these parallels. I think Nadav and Avihu saw them too. You and I, we’re seeing them in the text, but Nadav and Avihu were living it, like deja vu, and it must have sent them hurtling back to that day when they went halfway up Mount Sinai, when they yearned to come close to God — but God had stopped them in their tracks.

Their desire was left unsatiated, it was put on hold — and now the memories are rushing back, and they are flooded, once again, by the desire to be close with God. That, I believe, explains the very next thing that they do:

וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי-אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ

Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, took their fire-pans

וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ

and they put fire in them

וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ קְטֹרֶת

and they placed incense on them

וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֵשׁ זָרָה--אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם.

and they offered before God a foreign fire that God had not commanded.

They rush into the Mishkan. They rush toward God. They’re trying to recreate Sinai.

Most of the commentators are so focused on trying to understand what they did wrong that they overlook our question: Why were Nadav and Avihu uniquely filled with this fervor? Everyone could see that something awesome was happening, but only Nadav and Avihu raced into the Mishkan. The answer, it seems to me, is the experience that they had when they went halfway up Sinai and they beheld God. They haven’t been able to get that image out of their minds ever since.

Twice in their lives, Nadav and Avihu approached God, and twice God stopped them in their tracks.

A Clue Hidden in the Name "Nadav"

This notion of people wanting to serve God and God stopping them… it’s interesting, I think we can actually see this playing out in the name “Nadav.” Nun, dalet, bet. It’s a name that means something. We’ve heard that word before. In the instructions to build the Mishkan, God had said:

וְיִקְחוּ-לִי תְּרוּמָה מֵאֵת כָּל-אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ

They should take for Me an offering from every person whose heart is willing

Yidvenu, Nadav. It’s the same word. What does it mean? Is your heart filled with a desire to serve God? Good! Lean into that! Bring God building materials for His Mishkan! It’s a beautiful idea. But do you know what happened? The people brought too much. Moses had to call them off:

וַיִּכָּלֵא הָעָם מֵהָבִיא

And the people were restrained from bringing

There was a misalignment between how the people wanted to serve God and what God wanted from them. So Moses actually places a restraint on their nedivut, their overflow of devotion — their “Nadav-ness.”

The next this time word “Nadav” emerges — it’s in Leviticus. This time, it’s a nedava, a freewill offering. It’s a kind of sacrifice that you bring voluntarily, simply because your heart is filled with love for God. But even a nedava has rules. It’s bounded, regimented. You can’t just serve God however you want, even if it’s coming from a place of genuine love.

Why not?

Because when you love someone, it’s not about what you want to give. You’re supposed to ask: what does the Other want to receive?

Understanding the Death of Aaron's Sons

I don’t know why God wanted Nadav and Avihu to make that initial ascent up Mount Sinai with Moses, but evidently, God didn’t want them to go all the way. He restricted them from coming too close. He wanted them to keep their distance. They were also supposed to keep their distance at the dedication ceremony. But they were so caught up in the moment, so caught up in their love for God, that maybe they didn’t stop to think about what God wanted from them.

וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֵשׁ זָרָה

They offered before God a foreign fire

אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה, אֹתָם.

that God had not commanded.

With Nadav and Avihu, we’re talking a relationship between human beings and God, but I think it’s also true for our relationships with other people.

I want to share a personal story. A couple of weeks ago, I passed a man on the street. He was holding a sign: “Lost my job, lost my house, family needs a miracle.” Now, I’m no martyr — I’ve seen plenty of signs like that in my day, and usually I just avoid eye contact, feel awkward, guilty, maybe I’ll offer a quick smile or a dollar bill… but for some reason, it really got to me. Suddenly, I had an idea: I’ll invite him and his family over for dinner! They’ll come over, we’ll bond. It’ll be great! Then I caught myself. I was trying to give, but I was going about it all the wrong way. It was all about me. I wanted to help him. I wasn’t thinking about what he wanted. I wasn’t treating this guy with respect. He wants to shlep out to my house for a bonding experience? I don’t think so.

I meant well, but I needed to take that willingness to give, that nedivut, and channel it — to ask him what he wants. Maybe he just wants me to drop off some groceries, or a gift card for the supermarket so he can shop himself, with dignity. Oh well, so it’s not going to be a formative lesson for my kids in chesed. Or maybe, it’ll be their most important lesson yet.

Love needs to be bounded by respect. Without respect, it’s dangerous. Maybe it’s not even really love.

Want more? Of course you do, right? Check out Rabbi Fohrman’s awesome course on Nadav and Avihu’s sin and its connection to humanity’s very first sin: link in the description below.

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