Shabbat Parashat Mishpatim| 5766
From the works of Hagaon Harav Shaul Yisraeli zt”l - The Burning of the Soul, With the Body Intact - From Harabbanut V’hamedina, pp. 214-216
The gemara in Sanhedrin (52a) says: “It was that Moshe and Aharon were walking, and Nadav and Avihu [Aharon’s sons] were walking behind them. Nadav said to Avihu: ‘When will these two old men die, and you and I will lead the generation?’” Rashi comments that we see that they died because they sought power. The gemara continues that their punishment was that their souls were burned, and their bodies remained intact.
Nadav and Avihu were two of the greatest men of their time, as Moshe said about them in Hashem’s Name, “through My holy ones, I will be sanctified” (see Sifra, Shmini 36). If so, we can assume that the criticism they raised about Moshe and Aharon’s leadership must have been correct in their eyes. They apparently wanted to prevent an outbreak of dissatisfaction with the leaders. Such sentiment did actually find expression later in Korach’s complaints about the division of the nation into class groups of Kohanim, Leviim, and Yisraelim, of the chosen more and the chosen less. Perhaps there were complaints that Moshe and Aharon were causing disunity by saying that “Torah professionals,” whom they represented, were needed. After all, many felt, wasn’t it the Divine Will to settle the Land and build it up, a task at which the younger guard of Nadav and Avihu, were ostensibly more qualified? If that is the case, then why should Moshe and Aharon have elevated themselves above others?
Nadav and Avihu’s punishment was the burning of their souls while their bodies remained intact, and that displays their misconception. Only with the existence of an Aharon, who was separated to be “holy of holies,” was it possible to have a whole mass of people who could be a “holy nation.” As long as there were people like Moshe, who “kill themselves in the tent of Torah,” there could be laymen who work the fields and still set times for Torah study. Only then could the whole social structure of the nation be called the “congregation of Hashem.” Nadav and Avihu brought “foreign fire” (see Vayikra 10:1), instead of the fire of holiness, and that is what caused the punishment that their souls be burnt.
Part of what Nadav and Avihu did not understand is that they had a very important role to play, even as Moshe and Aharon held the top, leadership positions. The nation would have followed not only the “old guard” that Moshe and Aharon represented, but also the example of young leadership that Nadav and Avihu represented. The latter represented Torah and Avoda, the application of Torah values within the daily life of work, acting as role models for pure living, for operating with honesty within the workplace, and living simply and modestly.
Instead of sanctifying Hashem through their death, they could have sanctified Him through their life. Instead of having their souls burned, they could have elevated those souls, by breathing life into settlement of the Land and building an active life of morality. Instead they minimized the worth of true Torah values, which they should have viewed as the foundation for all elements of the nation’s life. When that happens, one gets dragged along after the lowlier elements within society. One then listens to those who would delegitimize the contribution that a Moshe and an Aharon could have made. Instead of viewing them as shining examples of holy lives and values, they demand leadership of those who would lower themselves to the level of the simple person on the street to show that “we, the leadership, are no different than the average citizen.” The burning of the soul, with the body remaining intact, is indicative of Nadav and Avihu’s desire to stress the physical side of life and have it overshadow the spiritual. One has to remember, though, that it is the strong spiritual basis that gives life and meaning to the physical.
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