The Consuming Fire
Two fires came from before The Lord. The first consumed the nation’s offering, and the second, Nadab and Abihu, the two sons of Aharon.
The Mishkan was assembled, ceremoniously dedicated, Moshe and Aharon stood in front of the nation, blessed them, and then, finally, God’s glory appeared to all of the people. A fire came forth from God and consumed the offering and the fats. The nation, seeing the glory of God and the fire, raised their voices in praise and prostrated. This was a truly awesome day; the day God’s glory filled the Mishkan before the eyes of the nation. Immediately after, another fire came from before God, though, this time, it was to consume Nadab and Abihu, two of our greatest men.
We remain in shock to this day. What did Nadab and Abihu do that resulted in this tragedy? They seem to have been moved by the awesomeness of the day, inspired to participate, and therefore decided to offer their own incense in the Mishkan. So, why would they be punished for their zealousness? This is a question that has troubled many throughout the generations. The Hakhamim of the midrash have addressed this and proposed numerous possible answers. Each of these midrashim paints a scenario not mentioned in the text and relates that it was due to that scenario that they were punished.
One of the midrashim explained that the transgression of Nadab and Abihu was that they responded to a halakhic question posed to Moshe, their teacher, in the presence of Moshe. Another midrash described a scenario in which Nadab said to Abihu, as they walked behind their father Aharon and uncle Moshe, “when will these two men die, and then we’ll lead the generation.” Both of these scenarios are troubling and could be the cause of their deaths, but they are different accounts describing different transgressions. Furthermore, there are numerous other midrashim, each one describing another possible wrongdoing. So, did Nadab and Abihu make all of the transgressions mentioned in these various midrashim or only one or maybe even two of them?
Rambam’s son, Rabbenu Abraham, the author of ma’amar al ha’agadah, a treatise on how to study midrash, believes that most of the midrashim describing this tragedy are making the same point. He does not think there is a contradiction between these midrashim since he believes it is a message these midrashim seek to deliver.
In his book The Guide to Serving God, Rabbenu Abraham explains the message of these midrashim. Before he describes the cause of their deaths, he states that it would be a sin to criticize them and one must realize that Nadab and Abihu “were more worthy than their brothers Elazar and Itamar.” Nadab and Abihu were among the greatest men of Am Yisrael and received prophecy along with the seventy elders. Only after making this point does he begin to describe the message of these midrashim.
The true meaning of the statement is that they [Nadab and Abihu] boldly proceeded to do an act they were not commanded to perform, as the Torah reveals. Had they asked permission from Moshe to carry out their plan, they would have been spared from that calamity…This is the intent of the Sage’s statement that [their fault was that] they determined a law in the presence of their teacher… Besides these two statements, there are other comments made, but there is no need to elaborate on them. The bottom line, though, is that the cause of their problem was that they deviated slightly from humility.
Nadab and Abihu desired to relate to God but did so without consideration of how God instructed us to relate to Him. They overstepped, as is now clear in the midrashim about Nadab and Abihu relating a halakha before Moshe, waiting for Aharon and Moshe to pass, or even entering to serve in the Mishkan intoxicated or without the proper attire. Out of their excitement, Nadab and Abihu went beyond their role and guidelines.
Another midrash points out that not only did they not ask Moshe, but they also did not consult with each other. Therefore the pasuq says that each one brought his own pan, ish mahtato. They did not ask for instructions from Moshe or discuss with each other if their actions were appropriate. They each acted in a way that they saw fit, not through God’s instruction, Moshe’s, or even each other’s. Rabbenu Abraham makes this point by stating: “had they asked permission from Moshe to carry out their plan, they would have been spared from that calamity.” Their transgression was in deciding on their own how to serve God. They brought an offering that God did not ask for, asher lo siva otam.
God tells us that the way to be qadosh and relate to Him is through following His misvot, specifically as He instructed. That is why every time we do a misva, we say: asher qideshanu bemisvotav vesivanu, that [God] makes us qadosh with His misvot. To have a relationship with God we need to offer that which He wants, not that which we want to give. The same is true with interpersonal relationships. When we give someone a gift, not of what we want to give, but of what the other person wants, we create a relationship with the other person. True giving is responding to the request, desire, and needs of another.
God instructs us how to serve Him, and it is only through these actions that one serves God. If one decides on their own what service is appropriate, then one is essentially serving one’s own needs by doing what one wants to do as opposed to what God asked for. Having humility means knowing one’s place, taking a step back and becoming aware of others needs. If we refrain from putting ourselves first, we can then understand another’s needs and address them, as opposed to serving myself.
The death of Nadab and Abihu serve as a powerful lesson for us. They were made into an example as the pasuq states: biqrovai eqadesh, through those who are close to me I will be made distinct, and ve’al penei khol ha’am ekabed, before all of the people I will be glorified. The message is that we should be humble. Even when we feel the fervor and excitement, we must realize that if our goal is to serve, then we must pay careful attention to how God wants us to serve Him. The same is true for our interpersonal relationships. We may sometimes think we know what is best for our loved ones, but sometimes we need to be humble and realize that if our goal is to serve them, we need to recognize how they want us to interact with them.
Rabbi Meyer Laniado
 ויקרא רבה כ׳:ו׳
תני, ר’ אליעזר: לא מתו בניו של אהרן, אלא על ידי שהורו הלכה בפני משה רבן. ומעשה בתלמיד אחד שהורה לפני רבו ר’ אליעזר אמר לאימא שלום: אי לאשתו של זה אינו מוציא שבתו! לא באת שבתו עד שמת. נכנסו חכמים אצלו. א”ל: נביא אתה?! אמר להם: (עמוס ז): לא נביא אנכי ולא בן נביא, אלא כך מקובלני כל המורה הלכה לפני רבו חייב מיתה
 Tbavli Sanhedrein 52a וכבר היו משה ואהרון מהלכין בדרך ונדב ואביהו מהלכין אחריהן וכל ישראל אחריהן. אמר לו נדב לאביהוא אימתי ימותו שני זקינים הללו ואני ואתה ננהיג את הדור? אמר להן הקב”ה הנראה מי קובר את מי?!
 ויקרא רבה כ׳:ט׳
ר’ מני דשאב ורבי יהושע דסכנין ור’ יוחנן בשם ר’ לוי אמרו בשביל ד’ דברים מתו בני אהרן ובכולן כתיב בהם מיתה על שהיו שתויי יין וכתיב בו מיתה שנאמר (ויקרא י, ט): “יין ושכר אל תשת” ועל ידי שהיו מחוסרי בגדים וכתיב בו מיתה שנאמר (שמות כח, מג): “והיו על אהרן ועל בניו” ומה היו חסרין מעיל שכתוב בו מיתה שנאמר (שם, לה) “והיה על אהרן לשרת” וע”י שנכנסו בלא רחיצת ידים ורגלים שנאמר (שם ל, כא) “ורחצו ידיהם ורגליהם ולא ימותו” וכתיב (שם, כ) “בבאם אל אהל מועד ירחצו מים” ועל ידי שלא היו להם בנים וכתיב בו מיתה הה”ד (במדבר ג, ד): “וימת נדב ואביהוא [וגו’ ובנים לא היו להם]” אבא חנין אומר ע”י שלא היה להם נשים דכתיב (ויקרא טז, ו): “וכפר בעדו ובעד ביתו ביתו זו אשתו
 Also see מאמר על ההגדות by רב משה חיים לוצאטו: האחד הוא דרך ההשאלות והמשלים. והם הדרכים ההלציים הידועים אצל בעלי המליצה, אשר על יסוד הדמיון והמשל ייחסו מקרים ופעולות למי שאין המקרים ההם או הפעולות ההן נכונים לו כלל
 המספיק לעובדי ה – This work is largely lost. The end of the work has recently been published with an English translation by Feldheim
 Guide to Serving God Chapter on Humility.
 ספרא כ”ד:
“ויקחו בני אהרן” אף הם בשמחתם כיון שראו אש חדשה עמדו להוסיף אהבה על אהבה. “ויקחו” – אין קיחה אלא שמחה. “נדב ואביהוא” מה תלמוד לומר “בני אהרן”? – שלא חלקו כבוד לאהרן. “נדב ואביהוא” – לא נטלו עצה ממשה. “איש מחתתו” – מעצמם יצאו ולא נטלו עצה זה מזה.
 אבן עזרא על ויקרא י׳:א׳:ג׳
וטעם אשר לא צוה אותם. שמדעתם עשו ולא בצווי להקטיר קטורת גם באש זרה
אבן עזרא על ויקרא י׳:ב׳:א׳
וימותו לפני ה’. כי חשבו שעשו דבר רצוי לפניו