Our Religious Leaders


Why were Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, struck dead in the desert tabernacle (mishkan)? Everything was all set for the inauguration of regular sacrificial worship in the mishkan, and then this tragedy—why?


The Torah seems to suggest several answers. To begin with, it says that Nadab and Abihu had brought a “foreign fire” (esh zara) into the mishkan just before the incident. Fire itself could hardly be called “foreign”; most commentators believe this is a reference to the incense that burned inside the mishkan. If so, then saying that the incense was a foreign might mean that it had been put in the innermost part of the mishkan, where it would indeed be foreign. Or perhaps their offering was foreign in the sense that the coals that they had put in their incense pans had come from an ordinary “outside” source rather than from the incense altar itself. Or perhaps they had somehow omitted from, or added to, the required ingredients of an incense offering, or had put the proper ingredients in the wrong proportion—either way making their incense “foreign.”


Then again, it might be Nadab and Abihu were drunk, or even just a little tipsy, at the time. After all, not long afterwards, God says to Aaron, “Do not drink wine or any other liquor, you and your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, lest you die” (Lev 10:8). Was not this a subtle hint as to the cause of Aaron’s two sons’ death?


Whatever the precise reason, or combination of reasons, what seems most significant is what Moses says to Aaron immediately after his sons have been struck dead: “This is what the Lord [intended by] saying: ‘I will be sanctified by those close to Me, and I will be honored before all the people.’ And Aaron kept still.” Apparently, this is the lesson of the whole incident. But what do these words mean exactly?


“Those close to Me” refers to the kohanim, the priests who bring offerings in the mishkan and are closest to the Holy of Holies. (Ezek 42:13 similarly refers to “the kohanim who are close to the Lord.”) If so, I think a somewhat freer, but clearer, translation might be: “This is what the Lord [intended by] saying: ‘If the kohanim respect My sanctity, then I will be honored by all the people.’” For whatever reason—by putting their incense in the wrong place, or having made it from the wrong ingredients, or in the wrong proportions, or any of the other explanations offered—Nadab and Abihu did not properly respect God’s sanctity. This, God says, might in turn lead the whole nation into error.


The underlying principle is that the people charged with being the closest to God are ipso facto held to a higher standard. If they are not meticulous in observing all the laws and restrictions connected with God’s sanctity (laws of ritual purity, all the regulations governing the offering of sacrifices, laws of marriage, and so forth), then how can the rest of people, watching from the sidelines, be expected to honor God properly? This is what Moses said to Aaron, and Aaron knew that he was right, so he remained silent and did not offer a word of protest.


It is difficult to read all this without thinking that it has a message for people today. Those “closest to God,” who in our day should be our rabbis and scholars and others who act as religious spokesmen, are likewise to be held to the highest standards. In reality, however, the opposite often seems to be the case. How many such leaders nowadays end up in court or in jail, convicted of theft on a massive scale, or simply of abusing their office for personal gain?


Others are just morally bankrupt, assuring their followers that any act is permissible, so long as it is done in the name of Judaism and/or the state of Israel. Or else they are just silent—not the silence of Aaron, who accepted the justice of Moses’ words, but the silence of the uninvolved. The case of Nadab and Abihu ought to give such “leaders” pause. Even if they haven’t committed an actual crime, have they really upheld the standard of “I will be sanctified by those close to Me”?


Shabbat shalom!

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