Shemini: The Deaths of Nadav & Avihu, Sons of Aaron
By Rabbi David Hartley Mark
“Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them… and he stepped down after offering the burnt offering[s]. Fire came forth from the LORD and consumed the burnt offering. …And all the peole saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces. Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan…and laid incense in it…and offered before the LORD strange fire…and fire came forth from the LORD and consumed them; [and they died by the hand of the LORD]” –Lev. 9:22-10:2
I am Avihu, the second son of Aaron, the High Priest; my elder brother is Nadav. This is our Big Day. Aaron—that is, Dad—is to dedicate the Mishkan, the Holy Sanctuary of the Wilderness, the Place where the One True God is to dwell. We will participate in the Ceremony of Dedication, too.
We are very nervous. Dad is—Dad is—can I speak plainly? Dad is not helping. Let me explain. The world knows Dad as the “Lover of Peace and Pursuer of Peace,” as Aaron, the younger brother of Moses, our uncle, the Prophet of God. Together, they freed the slaves from Egypt. Since that time, Moses spends his days speaking to God, while Aaron—that is, Dad—serves God in this Sanctuary, making sacrifices and receiving offerings from the Israelites. He also makes peace among them; he is a judge, as is Moses.
Everyone loves Aaron; how could they not? He is the most patient man on earth—that is, except with us. He has always expected us to be perfect, my brother Nadav and me. It has been especially hard on Nadav, who would rather have been a hunter in the fields. He has trouble paying attention, and often relies on me to explain the complicated laws and practices of sacrificial offerings to him. He himself is very strong, and so we make a good team—except when Dad is around.
Dad is very impatient with us: he yells and stamps his foot, all the time. We wish he would be even half as patient with us, as he is with those who come to him for advice. Then, you should see how he acts! He listens thoughtfully, strokes his beard, nods, and even cries to hear their sad story. He will put a comforting arm around the shoulders of a man, or pat a grieving widow on her hand. He will walk along with them, listening. And then, finally, he will give them his advice. Everyone loves him.
Not so with us.
And now, it is the Dedication Ceremony. After waking us at dawn, Dad goes over and over the million steps of the sacrificial service, until I, even I, who usually can memorize these things without book, am nearly lost in their profundity. I have written notes on dozens of papyrus slips, and hidden them in my priestly robes.
I look at Nadav: he is dead on his feet, and keeps nodding off, despite the strong black tea that the Levite servers keep pressing on us.
I see Dad staring at Nadav. Suddenly, he reaches out, and slaps him full on the face. The clay cup of black tea goes spinning off through the air, skittering into a corner.
“What is the MATTER with you, Nadav?” he asks, his voice rising to a shout, almost a scream, “don’t you see what this day means to me, to the family? You have to get out there and impress everyone; you have to show the World that you’re the Sons of Aaron.”
Nadav nods, rubbing his cheek. His tears are starting to flow. “Yes, Dad,” he says, in a small, choked voice.
“Don’t blubber,” says Dad, “I hate crybabies.”
“No, Dad,” he says.
“Make the family proud,” says Dad. He snorts at me, turns and stomps out.
“Are you all right, Nadav?” I ask my brother, reaching out to touch his cheek, which is flaming red, but he draws back.
“I’m OK,” he says.
“Make him proud, he means,” I say bitterly, “Why has he always been so tough on us, ever since we were little kids? Remember when Mom made those little ephods and robes for us, and we were playing at being kohanim? She thought we looked adorable, and wanted Shimon the artist to paint our picture, but Dad came along, told her that we looked a mockery of the Holy One’s Sacred Service, and made us take them off.”
“Take them off?” says Nadav, “He almost ripped them off our backs!”
“He made you cry,” I say, “Then, he took them away, and we never saw them again.”
“Well, forget about all that, Avihu. We have to get out there, and—and—and—“
“You see, Nadav? Your stammer is back! I thought you had lost it. This is all Dad’s fault.”
“N-n-no, the stammer’s g-g-gone. Th-th-there, I’ve b-b-beaten it. Wait (taking a bottle from a bookcase in the tent) this will help.”
“What is that?” I ask.
“Just a little hair of the dog, as th-th-they say. A little honey m-m-mead (Taking a drink) to calm my nerves.W-w-want some?”
“Oh, why not?” I take the bottle; my heart is beating like an Egyptian water-clock. I keep seeing Dad in my mind, telling me what a screwup I am. “Here’s to you, Brother Nadav,” I say, and take a small, experimental drink. It makes me feel better, calmer. I believe I feel the Spirit of God entering into me—not the spirit of hatred I bore for my father, before….
Then, we hear a trumpet-blast from outside.
“That’s our cue, Brother,” I say, “but, wait—“
“What, Brother?” asks Nadav. I hear that his stammer is almost completely gone.
“You know we’re not supposed to do the service drunk,” I say.
“But, we’re not drunk!” cries Nadav, “I needed the liquor for my stammer, and you needed it because—because—“
“What? Are you the expert in Jewish Sac—Sacri—Sacrificial Law, now?” I manage to stumble over my words, and we both laugh. “I love you, O My Brother, O My Nadav,” I say, tears springing to my eyes, and we hug.
“No!” shouts Nadav, and the Levites working behind us look up, startled, “We need it, because our father is a—is a—you know.”
“Yes. I do.”
“Well, we should go.”
“Oh, did you fix the incense the way he told you?” I ask Nadav.
“Sure!” he grins, “Two measures myrrh, three measures cinnamon—“
“No, NO, Nadav—it was the other way round!” I am panicking, now, “Two measures cinnamon, three measures myrrh!”
“Oh, God. Now, we’ve done it. Again. Dad will be angry.”
“Well, it’s his fault, for yelling,” says Nadav, “What shall we do?”
“Nothing to do, but re-mix the bloody stuff,” I say, grimly, “Where are the bottles?”
Frantically, we fumble at the bookcase for the ingredients. Another trumpet-blast.
The People outside the Tent cheer: “Sacrifice to the LORD! Where are the priests? Bring the Offerings!”
A self-important young Levite enters, sees us scrabbling on the floor of the outer tent amid the incense-bottles, and states, “My masters, all respects and honor to you, but why do you tarry? The People demand your presence!”
“Oh, God—we must go,” I say to Nadav, who nods solemnly. We both rise, and dust off the knees of our robes. “Let us pray that God will have mercy upon our first sacrifice, and accept our shortcomings.”
We look at one another, and clasp hands. The Levites hand us our incense fire-pans. The brass shines in our hands, reflecting the morning sun that wafts into the Tent.
“Good luck, Baby Brother,” says Nadav, “See you on the other side.”
“You too, Brother,” I say, “Peace.”
As we leave through the tent-flap that the Levites hold open for us, the People’s voices rise from a shout to a roar: HALLELUYAH! HALLELUHU! KOL HANESHAMA TEHALLEL YAH….