What Was Their Sin?

D'var Torah by Rabbi Jay Spero


What Was Their Sin?

Contact Rabbi Spero at 862-9546 or


When this week’s portion begins, the Jewish people are celebrating the inauguration of the Mishkan—Tabernacle. The mishkan was inaugurated over a period of eight days, from the twenty third of Adar through the first of Nissan.

On the last day, Aron, the high priest, performed the service. After he had finished, his two sons Nadav and Avihu, without being commanded, arose and offered up incense: “The sons of Aron, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire pan, they put fire in them and placed incense upon it; and they brought before G-d a strange fire which He had not commanded them.  A fire came forth and consumed them, and they died before G-d” (Lev. Ch.10 V.1-2).

This story needs a lot of explanation. Why did Nadav and Avihu deserve to die? The Midrash notes in several places that Nadav and Avihu were both extremely righteous individuals. True, they might have made a mistake, but was the mistake deserving of the death penalty? And what exactly was their sin?

First let us understand why they deserved death. G-d does not judge people by a set standard; rather, He judges them by their own ability and potential. Because Nadav and Avihu were such outstanding people, they were held to an infinitely higher scale than the average person. In fact, their death was a sanctification of G-d’s name for a number of reasons (A sanctification of G-d’s name takes place when people are more cognizant of G-d).

First of all, the manner in which they died was a sanctification of G-d’s name. The fire flew into their nostrils and consumed their souls. This showed how close G-d was with them. G-d is loathe to go against the laws of nature, but for His beloved servants, Nadav and Avihu, He did so. Their deaths also gave their father Aron a tremendous opportunity to sanctify G-d’s name through his acceptance of the judgment that G-d had pronounced on his sons. Aron was rewarded for this when the next commandment was taught through him (the commandment that the priests may not drink wine before performing their priestly duties).  

Another way in which it sanctified G-d’s name, was it showed most that no person is “above the law”, not even people as great as Nadav and Avihu, who, besides being great in their own right, were also the sons of the high priest, Aron.

The question remains: still, what exactly was their sin?  Thirteen possibilities have been posited, amongst which the following: they had drunk wine before they entered the sanctuary; they were not wearing the correct priestly garments; they decided matters of Jewish law before Moshe and Aron did (while in their presence, which showed a lack of respect; they went uninvited to the Holy of Holies, etc.).  The Midrash explains how each example could be construed as a strange fire.

Rav Dessler explains that each one of these sins also has a common root: a lack of humility. For any Jew to reach his potential, he must have a large amount of ambition. But the ambition must be tempered with a dose of humility, for as great as any person may be, in order for him to be his best, he must be subservient to G-d. Even the great King Solomon realized that there was a limit to his wisdom and understanding (e.g., when he studied the laws of the red heifer and ritual purity). So while he had the ambition and drive to be King Solomon, he also had the humility to understand that he was not without limitation.

This is a challenge for every human being: to be confident in his own abilities, yet to constantly look towards G-d for guidance and strength.

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