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Vayakrivu lifnei Hashem aish zara asher lo tzivah osam (Vayikra 10:1)

The tremendous joy of the inauguration of the Mishkan was marred by the tragic deaths of Aharon’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu. Although the Midrash offers numerous opinions about the nature of their sin, the Torah tells us only that they erred by bringing an offering which they weren’t commanded to bring. What lesson is the Torah teaching us by emphasizing this as the cause of their deaths?

The Midrash relates that before giving the Torah to the Jewish people, Hashem first offered it to all the other nations of the world. Each of them asked what is written in it. Hashem responded with the mitzvah which would be most difficult for that nation to observe. Not surprisingly, they all declined. Some commentators question why Hashem didn’t similarly test the Jews by presenting them with the mitzvah which would be the hardest for them to keep.

The Chiddushei Harim suggests that Hashem also challenged the Jews in their weakest spot. Hashem told Moshe (Shemos 19:12) to set boundaries for the people around Mount Sinai, warning that anybody who attempted to touch the mountain would be killed.

The Chiddushei Harim explains that the core of every Jewish soul yearns for spirituality. As it was created next to Hashem’s Throne of Glory, it pines to come as close to its source as possible. The notion that a Jew should be limited in his spiritual ascent, being told that there are boundaries to how close to Hashem he may come, is anathema to his very essence. Nevertheless, the Jews passed this test, recognizing that true closeness to Hashem comes only from fulfilling His will. Approaching the mountain counter to His instructions may have felt holy, but would in reality have been spiritually vacuous.

When the Imrei Emes assumed the position of Gerrer Rebbe, he decreed that his disciples must be careful to recite the morning prayers at the proper time. This was a landmark enactment, as for decades they had been accustomed to spending hours spiritually preparing themselves for a sublime and awe-inspiring prayer experience.

One of the Gerrer Chassidim came to the new Rebbe to complain. He argued that since he began obeying the new rule, he lacked the necessary time to properly ready himself to pray. The quality of his prayers had declined and lacked the uplifting feeling of closeness to Hashem that he had once enjoyed.

The sagacious Rebbe responded that the Yerushalmi (Yoma 23a) teaches that if honey were added to the incense mixture, its smell would have been wonderful. If so, why does the Gemara rule that adding honey to the incense invalidates it? Although its smell may have seemed out-of-this-world, it would have been missing one critical ingredient: Hashem’s instructions to add it. Similarly, elaborate preparations for prayer may seem to result in an enhanced experience, but if it takes place outside of the time that Hashem allotted for the prayers, the perceived spiritual closeness doesn’t find favor in Hashem’s eyes.

Nadav and Avihu were overwhelmed by the inauguration of the Mishkan, a place where Hashem’s presence was palpable. In their excitement to come closer to Him, they forgot the most critical prerequisite to doing so: a Divine commandment to perform the action.

We live in a generation which actively promotes “spiritual” experiences. Temporary highs may seem tempting, but the lesson of Nadav and Avihu is that there are no shortcuts to closeness to Hashem, which comes only from fulfilling His expressed will.

 Q: Rashi writes (10:3) that Moshe told Aharon after the death of his two sons Nadav and Avihu, that he had known that the Mishkan would be sanctified through the death of somebody close to Hashem, but he had assumed that it would be either himself or Aharon, yet he now recognized that Nadav and Avihu were even greater than them. How is it possible that Nadav and Avihu were greater than Moshe, who was the greatest prophet ever to live, and Aharon, who was equal in greatness to Moshe (Rashi Shemos 6:26)?

 A: Dayan Yisroel Yaakov Fischer answers that there are two types of righteous individuals: those who perfect themselves, and those who also perfect others. Although spending one’s time and energy focusing on others comes at the expense of being able to work on one’s own self-growth, the Chovos Halevavos writes that a person who benefits the masses is on a higher overall spiritual level than somebody who singularly focuses on himself. Even though the latter may in fact attain greater personal perfection than the former, the accrued merits of those whom the former inspires to grow place him on a higher composite level. Moshe assumed that Hashem would choose to sanctify the Mishkan through the death of somebody who was greater in that respect — through the deaths of either Aharon or himself, as they were the two greatest spiritual influences on the Jewish people in their generation, but Hashem elected to take Nadav and Avihu, who, because they weren’t as busy dealing with others, had perfected their individual selves on the highest level and were actually able to reach higher personal levels of perfection than Moshe and Aharon.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email