Although written in the typical brevity of Torah narrative this was a major disaster roughly equivalent to two of the Deputy Prime Minister’s children dying on the day of the state opening of parliament! Not only is there no obvious reason given but moreover, the Torah tells us, that in response to Moses’ explanation of the tragedy “Aaron was silent.” He and his other sons were forbidden to mourn.
So what was the transgression that led to such a severe punishment? Rashi offers us two explanations:
“Rabbi Eliezer says; ‘The sons of Aaron died only because they decided a law in the presence of Moses their teacher.’
Rabbi Ishmael says: ‘Intoxicated with wine they entered the sanctuary’. This is supported in the text that follows which states that priests were forbidden to enter the sanctuary intoxicated with wine.
In trying to fathom the story it is important to understand that although in the Chumash it starts at Chapter 10 the chapter division is artificial and does not follow in any way the lineage and spacing of the actual Torah text. Thus this story is not to be taken in isolation but must be read in conjunction with the whole of the previous chapter. In particular the preceding three verses describe the joy on the peoples’ faces following the blessing by Moshe and Aaron and acceptance by God of the inaugural offering.
Were Nadav and Abihu trying to promote a similar reaction, in effect saying that it was now the turn of the younger generation to the lead the community? Was this their sin? If so when is it right for the new generation to take over? If we do not allow succession our communities stagnate by turning our backs on change that will revitalise them.
According to the interpretation of Samson Raphael Hirsch it was because they “each took his pan” acting without consultation with each other or Moses and Aaron. We cannot work effectively unless we communicate well with each other across the generations. This need to work together must underpin what we do.
I have tried to understand the severe punishment for the transgression. Was it on the basis that the higher one’s status the greater the punishment? Is the performance of the correct ritual so critical or was it because their intentions were self-glory rather than the glory of God?
I think that we are looking here at an even wider tragedy than the personal. Without a succession that is respectful and consultative a community actually dies. When we seek glory only for ourselves a community dies. To be strong the community must be prepared to allow the new blood to move us into the new era whilst understanding that it is also our roots that anchor us.
Michael Gluckman is a member of New North London Synagogue