Shemini-Aharon’s sons

In our parsha, two sons of Aharon the high priest – Nadav and Avihu – took it upon themselves to offer up a “strange” incense offering, and their lives were “snuffed out” by a fire that descended from above and incinerated them.  Rashi explains that they died “only because they produced a halachic ruling in front of Moshe, their spiritual master and teacher.”  This is strange, because the verses themselves indicate that they died because they offered up a strange offering, and not for any other reason – so why does Rashi find it necessary to explain their death because “they produced a halachic ruling in front of Moshe”?  Moreover, Rashi brings this explanation in the name of R’ Eliezer.  Why does Rashi find it necessary to mention the source?

What’s bothering Rashi is that immediately prior to this incident, the Torah records that a fire descended from above to consume the inaugural offerings and sacrifices that Aharon had placed on the altar of the tabernacle.  In this case, the fire descending from above was a positive event, designed to show that Aharon’s behavior was acceptable Above.  Therefore, when the fire descended a second time to “snuff out” the lives of Aharon’s son, it is difficult to give the fire a negative meaning.  After all, the fire was a manifestation of the shechina, of God’s presence on earth – so what could be negative about it?  Therefore, Rashi gives us another explanation for their death – that they were punished for offering a halachic ruling in front of their mentor.

However, one might think that capital punishment is a rather stringent punishment for such a relatively minor indiscretion – why should anyone lose their life because they mistakenly forgot their “place” and gave halachic instructions in front of their spiritual guide?  In response to this question, Rashi quotes R’ Eliezer.  It was R’ Eliezer who said, “One who states something that he didn’t hear from his own rabbi causes the shechina to depart from Israel”  (Berachot 27B).  That is, it was R’ Eliezer who originated the ruling that one should only offer halachic decisions that he heard from his rabonim. If not, he is doing the opposite of what a Jew should be doing.  To render one’s own halachic decision distances God’s presence from this world, rather than spreading Godly awareness, according to R’ Eliezer.  Therefore, R’ Eliezer took a very jaundiced view of anyone who offered a halachic opinion of their own in front of their Rav, and he judged them with capital punishment.

However, another question still needs to be answered.  Rashi explains that Nadav and Avihu offered their own halachic explanation “in front of Moshe, their spiritual master and teacher.”  At first glance, there is an even stricter problem here; they offered up their own explanation in front of their father, Aharon, who was also their dedicated teacher.  That should be an even more difficult problem than teaching in front of Moshe Rabeinu!  However, the answer to this comes from the laws of Pesach.  In Hilchot Pesach, we find that we are allowed to lean in front of our father, since it is assumed that he will give us permission to do so in any case.  However, we are not allowed to lean in front of a teacher who is at the seder, unless he explicitly gives us permission.  To lean without obtaining his permission implies a level of comfort and relaxation that is not to be taken for granted.  The same applies to Nadav and Avihu; it was permissible to offer their own ruling in front of their father, but it was not permissible to do so in front of Moses, since it could not be assumed that they were on such a familiar basis with him.

What we can learn from this is that we should not initiate our own paths in serving God without consulting with others, more mature and experienced, who have “been there before.”  Only then can we assume that we are on the correct path, and not embarking on a spiritual path that will lead to “nowhere.”

From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, vol. 12, page 49-56

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