Click Here to Receive Your FREE "High Performance Secrets" Video Series
Self-Mastery Academy Coaching Parsha Videos Audios My Story Contact/Speaking Free Video Series Login

Nadav and Avihu: Transcending the Ego (Parshas Shemini)

parsha sefer vayikra Apr 07, 2021


A boy is born locked inside of a small house, with no windows and no way out. He is provided with food and clothing, as well as books and some toys for entertainment, but that is all. He never once sees the outside world, never once sees anything beyond his extremely limited surroundings. Raised in such a way, he comes to believe that this house is all that exists. One day, someone comes along and breaks down the door to the house, letting him out into the world for the first time. Naturally, he is in absolute awe of what lies around him. The grandeur, the sheer magnitude and marvel of the surrounding world astounds him and leaves him wondering how he ever considered his previous existence to be a full life. 

Parshas Shemini presents the shocking sin and deaths of Nadav and Avihu. The pasuk describes how, during the Chanukas Ha’Mishkan (inauguration of the Tabernacle) Nadav and Avihu offered the ketores (spice offering) and were engulfed by Divine flames.[1] This episode is both striking and perplexing, as the pesukim do not clarify what their sin was, or why it warranted such a harsh punishment. At face value, one might think that they acted righteously, sacrificing an offering to Hashem in the Mikdash. What, then, was so egregious about their actions? We will go through a range of possible answers to these questions as we ultimately develop a deeper understanding of this topic.


A Few Opinions in Brief


Rashi[2] quotes Rav Eliezer's position[3], that Nadav and Avihu violated the prohibition of being moreh bifnei rabo- teaching halacha in front of their Rebbe, Moshe Rabbeinu.

Another opinion, mentioned in the Sifrah, is that Nadav and Avihu sinned by entering the Kodesh Ha’Kodashim (Holy of Holies). As the holiest place in the world, it is completely off limits to all except the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) and even for him, it is only allowed on Yom Kippur. Evidence for this position is in Acharei Mos[4], the very next parsha, in which the Torah links the Yom Kippur avodah with the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. The Sifrah suggests that this connection is due to the fact that the avodah of the ketores, precisely what Nadav and Avihu performed, is done exclusively on Yom Kippur in the Kodesh Ha’Kodashim. The fact that Nadav and Avihu are associated with this exclusive avodah hints to the fact that they performed it at the wrong time, and were therefore punished.[5]

Rashi also quotes Rabbi Yishmael's position, that their error lay in the fact that they were intoxicated while performing the avodah. This is based on the fact that the very next passage in the Torah prohibits a kohen from being drunk while performing the avodah. The juxtaposition of these verses is a hint towards the essence of their wrongdoing, as the prohibition follows an instance in which it was violated.[6]


The Big Question


There is, however, something missing from all of these approaches. Rashi[7] quotes the midrash which explains that Moshe already knew that two of the holiest people in Klal Yisrael would die on this very day, the day of the Chanukas Ha'Mishkan. Moshe originally thought that these two people would be Aharon and himself, but it turned out to be Nadav and Avihu instead. This midrash makes it clear that Nadav and Avihu were on a tremendously lofty level. If so, how could they have done something so egregiously wrong, something that resulted in such a harsh heavenly punishment?


Not Commanded


The Ramban therefore takes a different approach, suggesting that the only problem with Nadav and Avihu's avodah was that they brought the ketores offering without being commanded to do so. This view is drawn from the explicit statement of the pasuk itself, as it says that Nadav and Avihu brought an offering "asher lo tzivah osam" - that they were not commanded to bring.[8]

Based on this, however, we face a new difficulty. If Nadav and Avihu's sin was only that they did something which they were not commanded to do, our question is actually strengthened: What was so abhorrent about their actions that it merited such extreme punishment? Granted, Hashem did not command them to bring the ketores, but they did nothing prohibited, only something that was not specifically commanded. In order to understand the answer to this new question, we must understand what it means to be commanded in the first place, as well as the difference between being metzuveh (commanded by Hashem) and eino metzuveh (not commanded by Hashem).


Gadol Ha'Metzuveh Mi’Mi She'Aino Metzuveh


The Gemara[9] states that it is greater for one to do something which they have been commanded to do by Hashem than to do so of their own volition, without being commanded.[10] Meaning, it is better to perform a mitzvah (commandment) out of obedience to Hashem's will than to do so spontaneously, of your own will. At first glance, this appears counterintuitive. Would it not be better to do it of your own volition? Is this not a more genuine expression of Divine service? Instead of doing it because you have to, you’re doing it because you want to!




The first explanation for this puzzling statement lies in the concept of ego. As human beings, we are naturally resistant to external instruction or direction, preferring to do things only when we want to do them. Obedience to others requires sacrificing our ego, our sense of control, and our illusion of being ultimately superior. The essence of a mitzvah, however, is negating our ego and submitting to the will of Hashem. Hashem gives us instruction in the form of mitzvos; we obey them because He told us to, and by doing so, we submit our ego to Him. We may not understand or agree with everything, but in performing mitzvos we acknowledge Hashem as the ultimate source of truth and His instructions as the guide to ideal living in this world. We affirm that the source of truth does not lie within our limited selves, but within the infinite source of reality, Hashem.[11]


 Limited vs. Infinite


The second explanation for why the performance of a mitzvah is superior to an act of one’s own volition requires a deeper understanding of mitzvos. The simple understanding is that a mitzvah is a command from Hashem, requiring us to obey His will. The Maharal, however, suggests a fundamentally deeper understanding of mitzvos. He explains that the word and concept of mitzvah is rooted in the word “tzavta”- the Aramaic word for connection.[12][13] A Mitzvah isn't simply obeying a command, as a soldier obeys the will of his commander. Rather, it is a way for us to connect, spiritually and existentially, to Hashem, our source of existence.[14]

When we perform an action, we act as an extension and manifestation of the one who willed and commanded it. To illustrate, when you decide to lift your arm, the act originates within your will and your lifted arm is an expression of that original will. When Hashem commands something and we fulfill that command, we bond to and become part of something infinitely greater than ourselves, Hashem. Hashem wanted this to happen and you are now accepting His will, attaching yourself to it, and making His will your own.[15] By performing this act, you become a true embodiment and reflection of Hashem in this world. This is why it's infinitely greater to be commanded than to act spontaneously. When you do something - even something good - without being commanded, all you are reflecting is yourself. It is your personal form of avodah, self-contained and limited, disconnected from Hashem. Instead of manifesting something transcendent, all that you manifest is yourself. 

The ultimate depth of this is that as a tzelem Elokim, your own root will is Hashem's will. You don't "sacrifice" your will to adopt His will, rather you become deeply self-aware to the extent that you realize that His will is your root will. This comes with the realization that you are neither the center of the world, nor the source of your own existence. Hashem is. Let us briefly explore this topic.


Hashem as the Makom of the World


Many people believe that before Hashem created the world, there was simply nothing. On the contrary, until Hashem created the world, there was only Hashem Himself. As the Arizal, Ramchal, and others explain, Hashem created the world by making a makom, a space, within Himself. Just as everything in the physical world requires space to exist, existence itself requires a space to exist. If you have a cup completely filled to the brim with metal, you will not be able to pour any water into it. Only if there is a space in the cup, if there is room for the water, can you pour water into the cup. Before Hashem created the world, there was no space for us to exist, as all of existence was occupied by Hashem- ein od milvado. To create the physical world, Hashem made space within Himself for us to exist. This is why Hashem is referred to as the Makom of the world, the place of the world.[16] We exist within Hashem, so to speak; He is our makom.

Just imagine if you created a person within your mind, gave him a life story, a family, a role to play. You have now made space - within yourself - for this person to exist. However, he only continues to exist so long as you continue to think about him and give him existence. The same is true for each of us, we only continue to exist as long as Hashem continues to will us into existence.

This is the true nature of a mitzvah. A mitzvah connects us to Hashem and His will, attaching us to the ultimate Root of reality, the Source of all existence, the Makom of the world. Just as the boy in the introductory story suddenly realized that the world was infinitely more expansive than his tiny house, a mitzvah allows us to expand infinitely beyond the limited borders of our ego, connecting to the transcendent. In doing so, we become partners with Hashem Himself, and our sense of self expands infinitely.


Explaining Nadav and Avihu's Mistake


We can now understand the Ramban’s explanation behind the severity of Nadav and Avihu’s sin. Nadav and Avihu were not commanded to bring the ketores offering, they brought it of their own limited desire and volition. In doing so, they reflected their own ego, and nothing more. True, they had pure intentions, but this was not the will of Hashem.[17]


Deserving of Death?


Nevertheless, we are still left with one big problem. Granted, this may not have been the ideal form of avodas Hashem, since Nadav and Avihu acted without being commanded. However, was this action really deserving of the death penalty? We do not generally consider someone who acts without being commanded to be a sinner. On the contrary, they may even be a righteous person. They are simply not as lofty as someone who does this act through the direct command of a mitzvah, which is infinitely greater. Based on this, why were Nadav and Avihu deserving of death? The answer to this lies in the time and place of this incident.


The Root is Always the Most Potent


Every process is made up of multiple stages. The first stage is the spark of creation, which is followed by a slow process of expressing that original root seed, finally culminating in the finished product.[18] Take, for example, the growth of a tree. First there is the seed, which goes through a slow growth process as that seed is expressed, and eventually there is a full tree. Human beings go through this same process as well. Every person begins as a zygote, a single cell, which grows and develops into the end result - a fully formed human being.

In every process of creation, the root, the seed, is the most crucial and potent phase. This formative stage is also the most delicate. Any error or imperfection that occurs at this stage will have cataclysmic results. For example, if a child cuts his finger at the age of seven, the injury will be minor at worst. However, if there is even a minor glitch in the DNA of a zygote, even a single chromosome missing, everything can go wrong, the results can be catastrophic!

This is the key behind the Pnei Yehoshua's famous question regarding the miracle of Chanukah. He asks, why was it necessary for us to find an untainted jar of pure oil (shemen zayit zach) when we defeated the Greeks and reclaimedthe Beis Ha'Mikdash? There is a principle that “tumah hutrah bi'tzibur”- when everyone in the community of Klal Yisrael is impure, you don't need pure oil; impure oil suffices. Rav Yosef Engel[19] explains that while this is normally true, this specific case was an exception. This was not just a standard case of lighting the menorah, this was the Chanukas Ha'Mizbe'ach, the inauguration of the Temple. Since this was the inception, the root period of creation, everything had to be perfect. The oil therefore needed to be completely pure.

So too, Nadav and Avihu sinned during the original Chanukas Ha'Mishkan (inauguration of the Tabernacle). The Nefesh Ha'Chaim explains that this building of the Mishkan was like the rebuilding of the world. This creative process was in its root stage; anything even slightly amiss would be devastating. We simply could not afford to begin with anything out of place, otherwise the Mishkan would be built on these faulty principles. This is why Nadav and Avihu received such a severe punishment: they sinned at the root stage of the process. Their act, and its repercussions, were multiplied exponentially due to the timing.


What, Why, and How


Every act we perform is multilayered, and our decisions must reflect this sophistication as well. First, we must determine what exactly we are doing. Is this action a reflection of a deep truth, and therefore objectively valuable, or is it meaningless? Next, we must question why we are doing this act. Am I doing it with the intention of connecting with the infinite will of Hashem, or am I simply expressing my own limited ego? As we then proceed to undertake the action, we must ask ourselves how we are doing it. Are we maintaining our commitment to idealistic connection as we perform the act, or are we just going through the motions? May we be inspired to search for the truth, to live by that truth, and to connect with Hashem in the deepest and truest of ways.


[1] Vayikra 10:1-2.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Vayikra Rabbah 12:1.

[4] 16:1

[5] Rabbi Akiva suggests that the problem was where the fire came from; they sinned by bringing a forbidden fire (aish zarah) onto the mizbeach.

[6] Taking a deeper look at the concept of drunkenness, there is an interesting idea embedded in this position of Rashi. The spiritual concept of intoxication is related to the theme of transcendence and the expansion of consciousness. Although done inappropriately, Nadav and Avihu were attempting to transcend their physical state and connect to Hashem on the deepest level. This explains why they specifically chose to do the avodah of the Kodesh Ha’Kodashim, a place which transcends all physical dimensions of time and space. Their "sin", therefore, was that they were not yet ready to enter such an exalted spiritual realm. This explains their distinctive, strange punishment: The pasuk states that they were engulfed by Divine flames, and Rashi explains (based on the Gemara) that their physical bodies remained intact while their souls alone were engulfed by the fire. Nadav and Avihu transcended to a completely spiritual level, one they were not yet ready for nor capable of handling, and they were therefore spiritually consumed.

[7] Vayikra 10:3.

[8] Vayikra 10:1.

[9] Bava Kama 38a, Bava Kama 87a.

[10] Gadol ha’metzuveh v’oseh mi’mi she’aino metzuveh v’oseh.

[11] For more on the relationship between reason and that which transcends our limited understanding, see chapter on Parshas Chukas.

[12] See also Shelah HaKadosh- Yoma- Derech Chaim Tochachas Mussar (16), Brachos 6b, Sfas Emmes- Parshas Eikev- 632.

[13] It is interesting to note that the previous chapter - Parshas Tzav - was all about tzavta, creating genuine connection.

[14] This is the key difference between the popular definition of freedom, and the Jewish perspective on freedom. Many people view freedom as the ability to do whatever they want, to be free of all responsibility and obligation. Judaism, however, views freedom through a lens of idealism and truth. True freedom is the ability to express your highest self, to achieve your fullest potential, to loyally reflect Hashem's will in this world. The real slavery in Egypt was not the physical bondage, but the inability to live a life of truth. When we were freed from Egypt, we became ovdei Hashem, servants of Hashem. At that point, we were truly free, because only a slave to the truth is free. Our freedom lies in responsibility, in obligation, in living a higher life, a spiritual existence. (Another aspect of human freedom lies in our free will, our ability to choose good over evil.)

[15] Avos 2:4.

[16] Medrash Tehillim 90, Rashi on Pirkei Avos- Perek 2).

[17] This is also one of the explanations of Adam Ha'Rishon's sin, the chet ha'egel, Shaul's sin, Dovid's sin, and many other fundamental errors throughout Tanach. While these applications are beyond the scope of this chapter, this shows how far reaching this principle is.

[18] For more on this concept, see chapter on Parshas Bamidbar.

[19] Gilyonei Hashas, Shabbos 21b.

Get Rabbi Reichman's Weekly Newsletter:

Join 1000's of subscribers!
Get Rabbi Reichman's weekly inspiring articles and videos sent straight to your inbox.

Learn More About Self-Mastery Academy

The Revolutionary Online Course that Will Transform the Way You Engage in Self-Development

Learn More

50% Complete

Where Should We Send Your Free Video Series?

Receive INSTANT ACCESS to Shmuel's 3-Part video series that will help you optimize your performance and take your life to the next level.