“The sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, each took his fire pan…and they brought before G-d an alien fire that He had not commanded them.”
What was the grave sin of these holiest of leaders that brought upon them the severe punishment of death? The Rabbis have offered many and varying interpretations of their error and the puzzlement remains. How could the most promising and learned disciples of Moses and Aaron fail in such a serious manner? The fire they brought is described as “alien” or “strange” implying that it was not supposed to be there. The Torah further comments that this was not the fire that G-d commanded. What does this mean?
The sin of Nadab and Abihu did not start on this eighth day of the commemoration. Already at Mt. Sinai they had eyed the leadership. “When will these old men [Moses and Aaron] die so that you and I will lead the congregation?” (Midrash) Their sin seemed to derive from a heightened view of their own spiritual prowess, a fault frequently found among the young. Their own elevated spiritual rank misled them into thinking that they were better than their elders, and this was the root of their sin. The Rabbis note that part of their mistake was that they did not consult their elders and made legal decisions without concern for the past. This was the result of their youthful vanity.
Similarly, they did not consult one another but rather acted as individuals detached from each other. Rabbi Hirsch notes that the verse says that each took “his” fire pan. The verse does not say that they took “fire pans” but rather that each took an individual, separate pan in order to display his own distinct and subjective concept of the worship (Vayikra Rabba 20). Each went his own way without consulting with the other. This is the tragic consequence of not respecting the previous generations. When the past is ignored and not venerated, then even the loyalty and respect for one’s own peers and brothers is absent as well.
While pursuing a personal relationship with G-d,
we must beware that this does not weaken our conception
of the people of Israel as one unit
Why is this called an “alien fire”? The proper fire is that which is commanded by G-d, and that fire is not separate, individual aspirations but rather the spirit of the nation as a whole. When people interpret for themselves the best way to revere G-d, they are actually separating themselves from the community. This is an egregious error even if the intentions are praiseworthy. Our greatest strength as a nation is to act in unison, fully aware of the bonds that tie us to each other. When we strike out on our own, when we compete with one another to show who is better, we bring that disjointedness and separation that G-d abhors. Even Nadab and Abihu, as high as they were, were not allowed to incorporate their own subjective views and ideas in the public worship. This is what “G-d did not command.”
Our mission is to worship G-d as a community and to behave as an organism rather than as separate entities. As we direct our eyes heavenward, in a vertical coordinate, we should not lose sight of the horizontal one that is the link that ties us together as a people. This is the reason that certain prayers and actions can only be recited or performed with a quorum, a minyan. Our own personal fervor must be reserved for the personal sphere and should be practiced in a discreet and private manner. This is the meaning of the verse, “Walk humbly with your G-d” (Micah 6:8). We are enjoined from acting in such a manner that makes us separate from the community or to act in an arrogant manner that flaunts our virtues and piety. We are to act as a unit and not to shine individually.
While pursuing a personal relationship with G-d, we must beware that this does not weaken our conception of the people of Israel as one unit. Perhaps the most fatal of our spiritual illnesses is the division that plagues our people when each group goes its own way and demeans the others. We are different and we should not erase the differences between persons, but we must be careful that we practice these special displays of personal fervor in our private lives and that we reserve a measure of tolerance, inclusiveness, and togetherness when we interact with others. While it is important to preserve the various traditions of Sefardim and Ashkenazim, for instance, this separation should not become a wall of alienation and divisiveness. In the same vein, people of various levels of observance and piety should not associate only with those who are at their level, often ignoring those who are on a lower level, but rather attempt to develop communities of prayer that can be joined by people at all stages. This is the reason that at one of the most solemn days of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, we preface our prayers with the declaration, “We are permitted to pray with the transgressors.” A prayer assembly where the “transgressors” are excluded is not a prayer assembly that G-d desires. We are all “transgressors” at some level; when we exclude others, we are excluding ourselves, too.
The sin of Nadab and Abihu was that they nurtured a separate fervor that, while noble and praiseworthy, was nonetheless exclusionary and separatist and therefore was “alien,” that is, separated from the unit of the people that G-d desires to see when we approach Him. We should learn from this the importance of inclusive communities and the grave mistake of thinking that we are above others. A Hasidic rabbi once pointed out that the letter yud also means a Jew. He said, when one Yid is next to another Yid, that represents the Name of G-d (written with two yudim), but when one Yid thinks of himself above another Yid, that represents the marking for the end of a verse (sof pasuk, marked as two dots that look like two yudim). When we come next to other Jews as equals and we regard them as important, G-d is there. However, when we lord over one another, thinking that we are above them, that is the end of the verse, the end of peoplehood.
Rabbi David Algaze is the founder and Rav of Havurat Yisrael, Forest Hills. He is a noted public speaker and author and is the President of the international Committee for the Land of Israel.