Our parashah follows last week’s cliff hanger: The altar and the priests who will serve it have all undergone seven days of consecration, in anticipation of the eighth day, the day of completion. Having done everything as set out earlier in God’s commands to Moshe, the community is gathered before the mishkan to see whether God will indeed reveal His Glory upon the newly-consecrated altar. This is by no means a given; just as the building of the Mishkan did not guarantee that God would “take up residence” in it, so here too, there is no guarantee that God will accept the offered sacrifice. God has free will, and the consecration of a sacred space is no guarantee that He will enter into it. We can only do our part; the outcome is out of our hands.
But this time, the miracle occurs: From within the Holy of Holies, where the glory of God has rested since the completion of the Mishkan, a fire emerges to consume the waiting sacrifice.
Aharon lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he stepped down after offering the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the offering of well being. Moshe and Aharon then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the Eternal appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from before the Eternal and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar, and when all the people saw, they shouted and fell on their faces. (9:22-24)
Playing with fire
But the triumph of the moment is marred by tragedy. Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu were also consumed by fire that came out “from before the Eternal”. Was this the same fire that consumed the sacrifice? The Rashbam seems to think it was. More recently, Rav Tamir Granot has shown that the position of the incense altar between the Holy of Holies and the sacrificial altar makes it all the more obvious that Nadav and Avihu were caught in the crossfire:
Since God’s glory was already present in the Mishkan, we cannot say that the fire emerged from heaven, as several commentators claim. The expression “from before God” proves our contention, since this expression universally refers to the Mishkan, and specifically to the Holy of Holies. The path taken by the fire, then, was from the Holy of Holies, via the incense altar (which stood facing the curtain, on the outer side, in the center of the vestibule), via the entrance, to the sacrificial altar outside. The direction of movement is horizontal.
Thus, the path of the holy fire crossed directly over the incense alter, the very place where Nadav and Avihu were standing, having loaded up their incense burners with an “outside” fire that they had not been commanded to bring. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. On a different day, their actions might have been correct. But not today. Not on a day when what was needed was not the man-made fire of the incense altar, but the holy fire of the Divine presence.
The Rashbam on our parasha makes this clear:
|Even before the heavenly fire had descended they [Nadav and Avihu] had already taken their censers to burn incense on the altar of gold since the incense offered in the morning precedes the offering of animal sacrifices (see Shemot 30:7); and they put in [the censers] an alien fire which Moshe had not commanded on this day. Though on other days it is written “And the sons of Aharon the priest shall put fire upon the altar” (1:7), on this day Moshe did not desire that they bring a man-made fire, since they were anticipating the descent of a heavenly fire; therefore the bringing of a different fire was not desired in order that God’s name should be sanctified.||ויקחו בני אהרן נדב ואביהוא – קודם שיצא האש מלפני ה’ כבר לקחו איש מחתתו להקטיר קטורת לפנים על מזבח הזהב, שהרי קטורת של שחר קודמת לאיברים ונתנו בהן אש זרה אשר לא צוה אותם משה ביום הזה, שאף על פי שבשאר ימים כתיב: ונתנו בני אהרן הכהן אש על המזבח – היום לא צוה ולא רצה משה שיביאו אש של הדיוט, לפי שהיו מצפים לירידת אש גבוה ולא טוב היום להביא את זה, כדי להתקדש שם שמים שידעו הכל כי אש באה מן השמים.|
Nadav and Avihu made a simple mistake, but one with dire consequences. On the day that God was to appear through a heavenly fire before the whole congregation, man-made fire was undesirable, as it would negate the miracle, making it seem to be the work of human hands. Their punishment is the direct result of their actions. The fire that consumes them was the very fire that consumed the offering; they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. We can look at events through several different lenses. We can just see this tragic event as a “work accident”, with no greater significance. However, the text offers us a tantalizing hint of what was going on “behind the pargod”.
Stealing God’s thunder
But Nadav and Avihu were not the last to make this mistake. We will read in BaMidbar (Numbers) of how Moshe fared when the nation of Israel reached a place where there was no water. There, God tells Moshe to take up his staff of office and “go fix it”:
|“Take the staff and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and speak to the rock in their presence so that it will give forth its water. You shall bring forth water for them from the rock and give the congregation and their livestock to drink.” Moshe took the staff from before the Eternal as He had commanded him. Moshe and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock, and he said to them, “Now listen, you rebels, can we draw water for you from this rock?” Moshe raised his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and an abundance of water gushed forth, and the congregation and their livestock drank.||
קַ֣ח אֶת־הַמַּטֶּ֗ה וְהַקְהֵ֤ל אֶת־הָֽעֵדָה֙ אַתָּה֙ וְאַֽהֲרֹ֣ן אָחִ֔יךָ וְדִבַּרְתֶּ֧ם אֶל־הַסֶּ֛לַע לְעֵֽינֵיהֶ֖ם וְנָתַ֣ן מֵימָ֑יו וְהֽוֹצֵאתָ֙ לָהֶ֥ם מַ֨יִם֙ מִן־הַסֶּ֔לַע וְהִשְׁקִיתָ֥ אֶת־הָֽעֵדָ֖ה וְאֶת־בְּעִירָֽם:וַיִּקַּ֥ח משֶׁ֛ה אֶת־הַמַּטֶּ֖ה מִלִּפְנֵ֣י ה’ כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֖ר צִוָּֽהוּ:
וַיַּקְהִ֜לוּ משֶׁ֧ה וְאַֽהֲרֹ֛ן אֶת־הַקָּהָ֖ל אֶל־פְּנֵ֣י הַסָּ֑לַע וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לָהֶ֗ם שִׁמְעוּ־נָא֙ הַמֹּרִ֔ים הֲמִן־הַסֶּ֣לַע הַזֶּ֔ה נוֹצִ֥יא לָכֶ֖ם מָֽיִם:
וַיָּ֨רֶם משֶׁ֜ה אֶת־יָד֗וֹ וַיַּ֧ךְ אֶת־הַסֶּ֛לַע בְּמַטֵּ֖הוּ פַּֽעֲמָ֑יִם וַיֵּֽצְאוּ֙ מַ֣יִם רַבִּ֔ים וַתֵּ֥שְׁתְּ הָֽעֵדָ֖ה וּבְעִירָֽם:
As on previous occasions, the people clamored for help in a crisis, and God brought about a miracle for them. And yet, this time was different.
|The Eternal said to Moshe and Aaron, “Because you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them.||
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ה’ אֶל־משֶׁ֣ה וְאֶל־אַֽהֲרֹן֒ יַ֚עַן לֹא־הֶֽאֱמַנְתֶּ֣ם בִּ֔י לְהַ֨קְדִּישֵׁ֔נִי לְעֵינֵ֖י בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל לָכֵ֗ן לֹ֤א תָבִ֨יאוּ֙ אֶת־הַקָּהָ֣ל הַזֶּ֔ה אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־נָתַ֥תִּי לָהֶֽם:
And to drive the point home…
|These are the waters of dispute [Mei Merivah] where the children of Israel contended with the Lord, and He was sanctified through them.||
הֵ֚מָּה מֵ֣י מְרִיבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־רָב֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל אֶת־ה’ וַיִּקָּדֵ֖שׁ בָּֽם:
But what did Moshe do wrong? And why so harsh a punishment? Hadn’t he been told to take the staff along and “bring forth water from the rock” In fact, we saw in a previous incident (Sh’mot 16: 1-7) that Moshe was explicitly told to strike the rock before the elders of Israel and bring forth water from it. Why are the two incidents different? The case of Nadav and Avihu provides a hint of an answer: In the parallel story, Moshe struck the rock in front of the chosen representatives of the people. It was a private matter, for their eyes only. They could be trusted to understand that Moshe was not himself working a miracle, but that God was doing the heavy lifting.
But in the second incident, the entire assembly was watching. Had Moshe merely spoken to the rock, as he’d been told, only those closest to him would have heard him. To those standing further off, it would just look like water came out of the rock when Moshe approached it: a miracle! The people—all of them, not just the elders—would see that neither Moshe nor his staff performed any magic, and would attribute the miracle to God alone. But when Moshe lost patience and hit the rock with the staff, he taught exactly the opposite lesson. Even those farther away could see water spurt out of the rock, seemingly as a result of Moshe’s forceful actions. What Avihu and Nadav only tried to do (wittingly or unwittingly) Moshe actually accomplished—he negated a miracle.
Not by coincidence is the key word in both cases “sanctified”. Moshe himself makes this point eloquently when he explains the source of the tragedy to Aharon:
Then Moshe said to Aharon, This is what the Lord said: “I will be sanctified in those that come near to Me (bi-kerovai ekadeish), and before all the people I will be glorified (ekaveid).” And Aharon was silent. (10:3)
Knowing what Moshe’s fate is to be, we can’t but see these words as chillingly prophetic.