This week’s Torah portion, Shmini, is named after the eighth day of the dedication of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, which is described in detail. The Mishkan symbolized the place of the Shechinah, the divine presence that resides among the Children of Israel.
Of course, it is important to emphasize that Judaism believes in a God who is not physical at all, and all descriptions of God’s presence are a metaphor for spiritual inspiration. This inspiration, which first appeared at Mount Sinai, continued to exist in the Mishkan and afterward in the Temple in Jerusalem.
The seven days of preparations for the dedication of the Mishkan culminated on the eighth day – the day Aaron the Kohen and his four sons began their work in the Mishkan, when the entire nation gathered around it and watched excitedly as the priests did their work.
The death of Aaron's sons
At the climactic moments of the eighth day, Moses and Aaron came out of the Mishkan and blessed the nation, and immediately fire came out of the Mishkan and burned on the altar, where the special sacrifices of the eighth day had previously been placed. The people responded with joy mixed with fear of God: “and all the people saw, sang praises and fell upon their faces.”
But it was in these uplifting moments that disaster struck. Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s two eldest sons, took pans with incense and brought them into the Mishkan against the instructions given to them, and then, unfortunately: “Fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord” (Lev. 10:2).
“Fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord”Leviticus 10:2
Joy turned into mourning, exaltation became despondency and grief, as Moses said to Aaron and his sons: “…your brothers, the entire House of Israel, shall bewail the conflagration that the Lord has burned.” The deaths of Nadab and Abihu spoiled the wonderful celebration of the dedication of the Mishkan.
Jewish sages throughout the ages sought to understand what was so serious about the actions of Nadab and Abihu, why the sin was so terrible that they were immediately punished on this special day. The magnitude of the difficulty in understanding this story can be seen from the fact that Leviticus Rabbah presents 12 suggestions for understanding the sin. Some of these answers arise from the simple reading of the text, and some of them depend on various clues in this and other Torah portions. Let us examine two of the answers cited in the midrash:
“Rabbi Levi said: They were arrogant. Many women would sit forlorn, waiting for them. What would [Nadab and Abihu] say? ‘Our father’s brother is a king; our mother’s brother, a prince; our father; a high priest; and we are two deputy priests. What kind of woman is worthy of us?!’
“Rabbi Menachema on behalf of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Nehemiah said.... Moses and Aaron were walking, and Nadab and Abihu were walking behind them, and all Israel was behind them, and Nadab and Abihu would say: ‘When will these two old men die and we will rule over the public?’” (Leviticus Rabbah 20:10).
Both explanations convey that Nadab and Abihu were arrogant and therefore undertook an independent initiative during the Mishkan’s dedication. The first explanation attributes the arrogance to their glorious family lineage, which led them to see themselves as superior to the rest of the nation; whereas according to the second explanation, they looked down on Moses, their uncle, and Aaron, their father, and wished for their deaths so they could rule over the public. It is clear, therefore, that arrogance caused them to be unworthy of being leaders and therefore they died on the day of the dedication of the Mishkan.
This story sends a message to all generations. Whoever thinks of exploiting his position to rule over others will be removed from his position; a man who sees himself as superior to other people will be totally lowered from his position. We all stand before God as equal human beings, not identical but equal, not uniform but required to act in unity.
The struggle against classes, against pride and power, began here, at the moment when the divine presence appeared in Israel.■
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.