-Rabbi Yaakov Levin-
Hashem defines the purpose of the Tabernacle in the following manner: “And they shall make me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst.” There are many parashot that deal with the construction and the workings of the Tabernacle, all in preparation for the introduction of the shekhina, Hashem’s divine glory, into the camp of Bnei Israel. After all the buildup, in the middle of the consecration ceremony of the Tabernacle, during which the people were to witness Hashem’s glory in their midst, clearly an uplifting and emotional moment, two of Aaron’s sons were suddenly struck down. Many explanations are given for the death of these two senior kohanim (priests) and what prompted Hashem to strike them down at precisely that moment, at the height of the celebration.
It is particularly difficult to discern the underlying reason for these events when examining the words of the Sages, who on the one hand discuss several transgressions that Nadav and Avihu were guilty of, some of which were certainly severe, while on the other hand highlight the words of Moshe “I will be sanctified through those near to me” and explain them to mean that Nadav and Avihu were elevated above all others, including Moshe and Aaron.
We can learn much from the fascinating commentary of the Sefat Emet (19th century Poland) on the sin of Nadav and Avihu regarding the importance of, and the proper approach toward, those who are often labeled the “simple people,” the regular Jews. The Sefat Emet writes the following in his homily on Parashat Shemini from 5648 (1888):
Regarding the sin of Nadav and Avihu, “which He commanded them not … but let your brethren, the whole house of Israel bewail the burning.” It is possible to suggest that the children of Israel said “we shall do” before “we shall hear,” just like the ministering angels. Afterwards, they fell from this level, and it was said: “Like a man you shall die.” Now, Nadav and Avihu maintained the first level like the angels, regarding whom it is stated “who perform his bidding” and then “hearkening” (Psalms 103:20). The reason is that an angel feels God's will within himself.
The Torah describes Nadav and Avihu as having perished “when they offered up an unauthorized fire before Hashem.” The Sefat Emet explains their sin in the following manner: Nadav and Avihu remained on the level of the children of Israel prior to the sin of the Golden Calf, which was the level of the ministering angels and the level of “we shall do” preceding “we shall hear.” This was the level on which they performed Hashem’s will naturally, of their own volition, without requiring any commandment. However, because the majority of the children of Israel were not at this level, Nadav and Avihu were punished.
Their actions transgressed because although they befitted their personal level of spiritual transcendence, they did not befit the level of the rest of the People who, following the sin of the Golden Calf, had fallen to the natural level of regular humans who require divine decree in order to act.
It is possible that this is what the Sages intended when they stated that Nadav and Avihu transgressed by rendering halachic decisions before their teacher Moshe and by asking “when will these two elders (Moshe and Aaron) die so that we can lead the People as they were prior to the Sin?”
This explanation then serves to shed light on the two sins that the Sages attribute to Nadav and Avihu, namely that they believed that they could “catapult” the People back to their elevated state from before the sin of the Golden Calf, thus prompting them to render halachic decisions before Moshe and Aaron, their teachers, and to wonder when these elders would die so that Nadav and Avihu themselves would have the opportunity to lead the People and elevate them without hindrance from the elders.
This, however, was not Hashem’s desire, as everything is set and defined before him. Each and every generation has its own unique leadership traits. Even though the Sin caused a decline, its result was set forth as intentional and true before Hashem.
The spiritual level of every generation determines the leadership that behooves that generation. Even if certain leadership is the product of a sin or spiritual decline, it is still Hashem’s will and determined by his divine providence, which itself is present wherever the People are. It is not appropriate, and indeed not Hashem’s desire, for certain individuals who transcend the level of the Peopleto try and lead the People by skipping over spiritual stepping stones or by providing leadership appropriate only for people on the transcendent level of the leaders themselves. Hashem desires that every generation be headed in accordance with its own spiritual level.
The Sefat Emet provides us with a fundamental insight with respect to the level of Israeli society. Even if there are people in Israel who are on a spiritual, religious and ethical plain that is transcendent from the rest of society, they cannot be the ones to determine operational leadership. The power of the regular people overcomes that of those individuals. This principle must serve to guide us when we found institutions of learning and religious education, youth groups and communities, as we must remember that Hashem directs his providence toward the majority of the People and we must consider all of Bnei Israel and not leave anyone behind. Moreover, it is our duty to follow the path of moderation and patience paved by the elders, Moshe and Aaron, who slowly elevated the People after the sin of the Golden Calf, without giving up on anyone. We must not distance ourselves, but rather attach ourselves to society at large and elevate ourselves together with everyone. There are no shortcuts.
Rabbi Yaakov Levin is a Tzohar rabbi, the rabbi of the Neta community and a teacher at the Or Me’Ofir mechina.