The story of the death of Aron’s two sons Nadav and Avihu is the central text read on Yom Kippur and is referenced four times in the Torah: Vaykira 10: 1-2; Acharei Mot 16: 1; Bamidbar 3:4 and 26: 61 suggesting possibly the level of significance.
This Parsha was incorporated into the Yom Kippur service by the 7th century author of the Pesichta D’Rav Kahanah. Many have asked the question why incorporate this parsha into the Yom Kippur service, especially since he lived hundreds of years after the destruction of the Temple when there were no more sacrificial worship, no usage of the sair laazazel, and certainly no holy of holies. The chazal and later medievalists suggests that the connection between this seminal event and Yom Kippur was just as Yom Kippur brings atonement so does the atonement of the righteous.
The Pesichta, not convinced by this interpretation offers a totally different approach and his analysis raises issues such as crime and punishment, appropriate punishment to fit the crime, and optional approaches to atonement, all of which are thought provoking and thus appropriate for such an awesome day.
In analyzing the deaths of Nadav and Avihu it is important to note that the horrific event took place on the backdrop of the dedication of the Mishkan, a day of joy and celebration; after the fire came down from God, publicly dedicating the altar and witnessed in joy by the Hebrews. All of a sudden the two sons of Aron offer a strange fire not commanded of them resulting in another fire emanating from God and killing them on the spot.
In trying to make sense of the event and find meaning behind it, the Pesichta offers six different complex approaches, one of which I will share with you. In this particular explanation he sites Kohelet, Chapter 9 verse 1-2:
“All this I grasped and clearly understood, that the just and the wise, together withal their works, are in god’s hands; men can be certain of neither God’s love nor His hate-anything may happen to them. One fait awaits all men, one lot comes to the just and the unjust, to the good and pure and the impure, to him who brings his offerings and him who does not; as with good man so with the sinner; as with man who swears lightly, so with him who fears an oath.”
The bottom line, writes Kohelet, is that for the righteous and the sinner the end is the same – death. Even though in comparing the lives of two people who are polar opposites, sharing nothing in common; one good the other bad still their end is the same. For example, and as Kohelet suggests, he who brings sacrifices, such as King Josiah and he who doesn’t bring sacrifice like King Achav died by arrows. Or he who swears impetuously such as King Zedekiah verses he Shimshon who is reluctant of taking the oath, in the end they both die in blindness. The Pesichta, taking this one step further juxtaposes those bringing the ketoret, the supporters of Korach who were rebellious and challenging leadership ultimately were consumed by fire vs Nadav and Avihu that attempted to sacrifice not out of divisiveness, but sincerity and too were consumed by fire.
Obviously, the author of the Pesichta is deeply troubled by this phenomenon: Life’s deeds don’t seem to impact on the quality of our mortality. It appears as though the Pesichta is challenging the accepted normative assumption that makes a connection between ones behavior and ones destiny. He questions these norms by introducing Nadav and Avihu into this scheme making it difficult for the “believer” in reward and punishment to come to terms with these events, unless one accepts the notion of “just rewards in the next life.”
This approach, as I mentioned earlier is only one of six exploratory initiatives into understanding the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. It is left unresolved-and for the reader to ponder as he reads this powerful chapter.