This week’s Torah reading includes a discomforting episode, the deaths of Aaron’s sons

Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before God, which had not been commanded of them. And there went out a fire from God, and devoured them, and they died before God. (Leviticus 10:1-2)

This week’s Torah reading includes a discomforting episode, the deaths of Aaron’s sons. The Torah never says exactly what they did that was so terrible that God would strike them dead. The episode begins with the installation ceremony of Aaron and his sons as kohanim, priests. Soon thereafter, Nadav and Avihu make an improper incense offering resulting in their death.

Over the centuries commentators have speculated, “What was the sin they committed that was so terrible?” Was it because they went into the inner room of the Sanctuary which only the High Priest was permitted to enter? Because they offered a sacrifice that God had not commanded? Was it because they did not work together as partners, but each did “his own thing”? Had they had too much wine; were they intoxicated?

One of the challenges and great pleasures of studying Torah is finding within it lessons for today’s living, so I must ask: what is the lesson to be derived from this strange and terrible episode?

What we do know is that Nadiv and Avihu made up their own rules about serving God and did this without consulting with their leader and teacher, Moses. Not only were they arrogantly changing the rules without consulting Moses, they were also publicly shaming him. Shaming a person in public is a very serious offense in Judaism, so much so that it is considered to be the equivalent of murder! The rabbis of the Talmud taught: “Whoever shames another in public is like one who sheds blood.” (Bava Metzia 58b). This is the rabbis’ way of teaching that shaming another is one of the most serious sins one can commit.

Often Torah’s stories offer exaggerated punishments for a person or people’s sins, making the punishment so severe that one would not sin! If the great sin of Nadav and Avihu was being so arrogant that they would bring shame to Moses, as some commentators suggest, then their terrible punishment is a warning to all of us.

Rabbi Debbie Israel