While it is somewhat tempting to offer an analogy to express that horror that the deaths of Nadav and Avihu must have elicited, I will refrain from doing so. Imagining a contemporary example is just to awful to put into words. After all of the work that went into the creation of the mishkan, on that thrilling 8th day of dedication, at the hight of the pomp drama, tragedy strikes. It must have been emotional whiplash. Maddeningly, the text does not say what they did wrong. Why not? And what did they do wrong.
- Also striking is Moshe's one sided conversation with his brother Aharon. For some reason, the words, “Vayidom Aharon – and Aaron was silent”, sticks out in our collective memory. Here is the entire text of the story from Vayikra 10:
Let's start with Aharon's response. Perhaps the reading that I'd like to propose leans more towards derash than pshat, but I think it expresses an important element of the story. Perhaps “ Vayidom Aharon” means more than that Aharon was silent. The part of his identity that was the individual Aharon was silenced, so that the Cohen Gadol of Am Yisrael could function in his post. Moshe neither comforted him nor told him not to mourn. All he reminded Aharon was that those in close proximity to God must sanctify Him. So the father of two dead men was silent, in order for the Cohen Gadol to so his duty. This type of professional detachment from the self is common in many jobs. My student, Yehudit Goldberg, compared it to a surgeon or a soldier.
There are many suggested explanations for the particular sin of Nadav and Avihu, but perhaps the common denominator for all of them is that they did the reverse. They were so excited to be able to enter the Holy Precincts, that they could not help themselves from an extra, informal visit “off the clock”. This is utterly unacceptable. The idea that humans can enter into close proximity with the Divine is absurd, and can only be symbolically performed by functionaries playing a role in a sanctified location. The duly appointed and anointed Cohanim can bring the ketoret, but Nadav and Avihu can't. This is also a commonplace aspect of professionals, as doctors, pilots and, bankers and government officials wear uniforms and play roles in their place of work. To paraphrase Steve Martin, you will deposit your money in First Federal Trust, but not in Bob's bank.
Th only exception is Moshe, who functioned quite comfortably in bringing the korbanot until the Cohanim are set to work. Moshe really was the individual who could stand comfortably in the Presence. But his essence was complete objectivity, and to a certain extent his individuality was in a constant state of supression. The standard reading the story of Aharon and Miriam's complaint behind Moshe's back as their lack of understanding this. They don't see why he can't have a normal family life. Of course, in order to always be accessible to communication with God, Moshe no longer had the normal existence of an individual. Seeing their uncle as a role model instead of their father was the tragic error of Nadav and Avihu.
There is, of course, a limit to professional role playing that does not exist for Moshe. This explains the exchange a bit later in the story. It reads:
- 16 And Moses diligently inquired for the goat of the sin-offering, and, behold, it was burnt; and he was angry with Eleazar and with Ithamar, the sons of Aaron that were left, saying: 17 'Wherefore have ye not eaten the sin-offering in the place of the sanctuary, seeing it is most holy, and He hath given it you to bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the LORD? 18 Behold, the blood of it was not brought into the sanctuary within; ye should certainly have eaten it in the sanctuary, as I commanded.' 19 And Aaron spoke unto Moses: 'Behold, this day have they offered their sin-offering and their burnt-offering before the LORD, and there have befallen me such things as these; and if I had eaten the sin-offering to-day, would it have been well-pleasing in the sight of the LORD? 20 And when Moses heard that, it was well-pleasing in his sight.
- Moshe does not understand why the three active Cohanim to not completely fulfill their role. They explain that although they are not abdicating their roles and responsibilities to mourn, ultimately their performance will be limited by the psychological reality that they just lost their sons and brothers. This creates a disconnect that will not allow them eat a chatat with the requisite peace of mind. Moshe is not silenced by this response, he is satisfied by the psychological reality as explained to him.