After weeks of delicate design and heavy labor, craftsmen extraordinaires Betsalel and Oholiav announce the completion of the mishkan/sacred dwelling-place, built from the seemingly endless donations of the Israelites—neither before nor since has there ever been such a successful fundraising drive in the history of institutionalized Judaism. Inauguration Day arrives, with a Chanukaht HaMishkan—Grand Service of Dedication planned by Aaron the High Priest and his oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu. But the young men, for reasons unclear, bungle the formula for the sacred incense: “And the [elder] sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, took each of them his incense-pan and placed therein the incense, and brought strange fire near to God as an incense-offering, which God had not commanded them.” Angered by this lack of attention to detail or caring—we will never, truly, know what motivated the hapless tyro-kohanim— God strikes them both dead, instantly. “And Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what God said: “By those who are close to Me with I be sanctified, and before all the people will I be honored,”’ and Aaron was silent” (Lev. 10:1-2; translation and italics mine).
That is all the Torah has to say about this tragic incident. Aaron, Elazar and Itamar (his younger sons) are not allowed to stop the service, or even show any outward signs of mourning; the two younger sons bear their brothers’ bodies off the sacred precincts, and all goes on as planned, with God and Moses alternating commands about differentiating between holy and secular, between polluted and pure—in light of the boys’ deaths, the sensitive reader may feel like crying out: Two young men have died: may we not halt the service for a bit, and properly mourn them?
Thereafter follows a tantalizing hint as to why the young men might have bungled the incense-formula—God warns Aaron directly (as opposed to giving prophecy through Moses) not to consume liquor or strong drink before entering the precincts of the mishkan. Commentators have speculated that, perhaps, Nadav and Avihu were nervous about their first public service, and so sipped a little alcohol to calm their nerves. God was offended that His servitors were tipsy, and so slew them. Still, we never learn the true reason for their sudden deaths, making them all the more tragic….
The Torah tells us nothing of Aaron’s grief; he is undoubtedly in shock at his sudden loss—as for his wife, we have absolutely no idea of how she feels; the Torah does not even record her name, much less her emotions!—but the Service Must Go On. The omission of God’s motives is glaring, but this is the nature of the Torah: it gives us only the details its authors (God or someone else) considered important. Nadav and Avihu’s actions angered God; God slew them, but the story only continues, as if nothing happened.
I suggest that the Torah is being veritably true-to-life in this episode. Tragedy is an essential part of our human condition; were it not for illness, for example, we might never appreciate the blessings of recovery and health. We learn here that even Aaron, the High Priest in all his glory, and a prophet second only to his baby brother Moses, underwent disappointment and suffering throughout his life. With the dawn of that fateful day, Aaron might well have been dreaming about the future of his priesthood, feeling deservedly proud that his boys would be following him into the “family business.” His bosom swelled as he marked their approach before the Nameless One, the Godly Power Who led the Israelites through the hazardous wilderness, Who would protect and defend them against all enemies, Who would cause Aaron’s priestly line to flourish—but then, a crack of thunder, a bolt of lightning, and his sons instantly lay there, dead on the spot. Did his faith in God waver? The Torah does not answer: we know only that he went on with the service, probably traumatized, certainly in mute acceptance of his terrible loss.
Perhaps this reveals the secret of us Jews, a people whose long history has been fraught with tragedy. “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him” (Job 13:15). We may argue with God; we may ask why we have been victimized so often and for so long; but, in the end, we must pick up our traps and move on, following the wearisome van of history. If evil strikes for no reason, we can question, but it would be far more human and humane (I mean to say menschlich) for us to reach out to those afflicted, assist in fighting their enemies, and help to bind up their wounds. We Jews have, historically, been on the side of the weak and oppressed, because of our own history of suffering.
If we ourselves suffer ill in life, what good will come of shaking our fists at the heavens? We must not wait for God to work miracles for humankind. God has sent us to answer the challenge, and we, alone or with others, must bring peace, justice, love, equality, and prosperity, both to ourselves, and to this tired, battered old world. To be a Jew is to accept the burdens of the human condition. We forever cling to both Torah and our mysterious, demanding, yet compassionate God, wherever life, history, and fate may take us.