א וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי-אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ, קְטֹרֶת; וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, אֵשׁ זָרָה--אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה, אֹתָם. ב וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה, וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם; וַיָּמֻתוּ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָהג וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אַהֲרֹן, הוּא אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ, וְעַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד; וַיִּדֹּם, אַהֲרֹן1 And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. 2 And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. 3 Then Moses said unto Aaron: 'This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.' And Aaron held his peace.
In the Talmud, the story was read as one demonstrating the importance of accepting the Torah's authority in its totality, and as a polemic against the the initiation of unsanctioned, spontaneous and creative ways in the Service of God. Nadav and Avihu, R Eliezer says in Eruvin 63, are punished for introducing a new Halacha in front of their teacher Moses:
The Midrash demurs, quoting Rebbi Pinchas in the name of Rebbi Levi as saying that the only hint we have as to their wrong-doing is the command given to Aaron immediately after their death - the command not to enter the sanctuary intoxicated. Nadav and Avihu died because they entered the sanctuary in an improper state of mind.
ר"א אומר לא מתו בני אהרן עד שהורו הלכה בפני משה רבן
אין אנו יודעים מפני מה מתו, אלא ממה שמצוה את אהרן ואמר לו (שם י): יין ושכר אל תשת אנו יודעין מתוך כך שלא מתו, אלא מפני היין
The vast majority of biblical commentators over two millenia have favored the Talmud's interpretation. The defense of the Midrash is led by Rashi's grandson - the Rashbam.
The Talmud's approach - the argument that Nadav and Avihu were punished for innovation and disregard for Moses' authority - has been championed by commentators offering various permutations on this idea. Two compelling ones are summarized in 7 years of Parsha discussions with Yeshayahu Leibowitz.
The Baal Haturim, for example, reads אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה (not commanded) as meaning אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה - לֹא (commanded - no). Nadav and Avihu had actually been commanded to not do what they did.
A more subtle explanation is quoted in the Netziv, who understood their actions not as being specifically contrary to God's Will, but rather as unwarranted creativity. Such creativity - the spontaneous decision to offer an unsanctioned offering - was a paradigmatic example of a more general problem of spontaneity in the Service of God. Without the structure and limitation provided by the Commanded rituals, the Divine Service is at risk of degenerating into a self gratifying service-of-self. To strengthen the point, the Netziv is quoted as explaining the double reference to "Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu" (at the start of the story) as being superfluous were it not for them having been commanded to serve God as Aaron's sons, but actually having acted for themselves.
For the Talmud, this story is about the key moment in Service of God being when a person readily accepts the obligation of Torah and Mitzvot. Any approach to God outside this framework risks idolatry because it can degenerate into service-of-self, and not Service of God. For the Talmud's followers, it is the pursuit of a spiritual experience outside the Torah by Nadav and Avihu that is punished by death. Their sin was - at best - assuming they had the right to create a new way of Serving God; at worst - pure disregard for a prohibition - and maybe idolatry.
For all the considerable strengths of these Talmud-based approaches, the end of the same chapter poses a challenge to this message. Here, regarding eating of the Sin Offering, Moses is upset by what he initially thinks is a mistake on Aaron's part, but Aaron then convinces him that it was not a mistake:
The Talmud teaches in Zevachim 101 B, that Moses here concedes to Aaron he "was not ashamed to say he had not heard this (law), but rather that he had heard it and had forgotten":
טז וְאֵת שְׂעִיר הַחַטָּאת, דָּרֹשׁ דָּרַשׁ מֹשֶׁה--וְהִנֵּה שֹׂרָף; וַיִּקְצֹף עַל-אֶלְעָזָר וְעַל-אִיתָמָר, בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן, הַנּוֹתָרִם, לֵאמֹר יז מַדּוּעַ, לֹא-אֲכַלְתֶּם אֶת-הַחַטָּאת בִּמְקוֹם הַקֹּדֶשׁ--כִּי קֹדֶשׁ קָדָשִׁים, הִוא; וְאֹתָהּ נָתַן לָכֶם, לָשֵׂאת אֶת-עֲוֹן הָעֵדָה, לְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיהֶם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה יח הֵן לֹא-הוּבָא אֶת-דָּמָהּ, אֶל-הַקֹּדֶשׁ פְּנִימָה; אָכוֹל תֹּאכְלוּ אֹתָהּ בַּקֹּדֶשׁ, כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוֵּיתִי יט וַיְדַבֵּר אַהֲרֹן אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, הֵן הַיּוֹם הִקְרִיבוּ אֶת-חַטָּאתָם וְאֶת-עֹלָתָם לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, וַתִּקְרֶאנָה אֹתִי, כָּאֵלֶּה; וְאָכַלְתִּי חַטָּאת הַיּוֹם, הַיִּיטַב בְּעֵינֵי יְהוָה כ וַיִּשְׁמַע מֹשֶׁה, וַיִּיטַב בְּעֵינָיו
16 And Moses diligently inquired for the goat of the sin-offering, and, behold, it was burnt; and he was angry with Eleazar and with Ithamar, the sons of Aaron that were left, saying: 17 'Wherefore have ye not eaten the sin-offering in the place of the sanctuary, seeing it is most holy, and He hath given it you to bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the LORD? 18 Behold, the blood of it was not brought into the sanctuary within; ye should certainly have eaten it in the sanctuary, as I commanded.' 19 And Aaron spoke unto Moses: 'Behold, this day have they offered their sin-offering and their burnt-offering before the LORD, and there have befallen me such things as these; and if I had eaten the sin-offering to-day, would it have been well-pleasing in the sight of the LORD? 20 And when Moses heard that, it was well-pleasing in his sight.
This problem might be the reason why the Midrash argues that the only hint we have regarding Nadav and Avihu's wrong-doing is the commandment - given to Aaron immediately after the tragedy - to not drink wine before entering the sanctuary. If that Mitzvah is the only hint as to their wrong-doing, then for the Midrash there are no clues regarding Nadav's and Avihu's motivations in bringing the unsanctioned sacrifice. Rebellion or innovation on their part are therefore (implicitly) rejected.
לא בוש משה לומר לא שמעתי אלא שמעתי ושכחתי
His mistake was an example of his great humility. But if Nadav and Avihu sinned because they felt that Torah and Mitzvot as they had received them were not enough, the Talmudic reading to the Nadav and Avihu story - as one of accepting of Torah and Mitzvot as we receive them seems compromised. Because if Moses himself can err, mistakes in what we receive from our teachers are not impossible. How, then, can the lesson of the Nadav and Avihu story be unconditional obedience?*
But if the Midrash insists that it wasn't rebellion or creativity that motivated Nadav and Avihu, why did they do what they did? And why does the Talmud insist that it is rebellion and creativity?
Perhaps it is the flow of the verses that invites the reader to speculate: Their unsanctioned offering comes immediately after the sanctioned one, and the second Divine Fire (in which they die) is described in the same terms as the first Divine Fire (which consumes the offering). There is an implied link, and the Torah's silence on its specific nature invites us to try and find our own reasons for their actions - rebellion and creativity are plausible options.
But the Rashbam did not feel compelled to read between the lines and look for wrong-doing. Working with the principle that the Torah does not describe things in chronological order, he sees the Nadav and Avihu story as happening at the same time as the story that precedes it. For Rashbam, Nadav and Avihu mistakenly think they are supposed to bring their offering, and because on that particular day this was not the case, they fatally place themselves in the path of the Divine fire that consumes the sanctioned offering. The Divine fire that consumed the public offering is the same fire that caused their death. There was no creativity here, no act of rebellion. They were only in the wrong place, at the wrong time. The sanctuary is certainly not a place where there is room for error, but error is what it was. For the Rashbam, all we can say here is that it was a tragic accident.
So whilst for the Talmud and many who followed it, this story was the paridigm for unconditional obedience and the shunning of creativity, for the Midrash and the Rashbam, it was not. And we have compelling reasons to read it both ways.
The Netziv's continuation of the Talmudic explanation (described above) was given in the 19th century: tensions between the new Hassidic movement and the Mitnagdim were very high. Hassidism's emphasis on emotion and not Torah study upset many, who saw this as unsanctioned creativity and that risked service-of-self. Prior to this, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 required creative theological responses to the new reality and Lurianic Kabala successfully offered many new meaning in a chaos filled world. But its radical idea of Divine Contraction was seen at the time by others to be superfluous and possibly even contrary to Torah and Mitzvot. For centuries prior to this, Jewish Mysticism and Jewish Rationalism had been disagreeing on major issues within Judaism. Creativity was always needed to meet new historical conditions, and always had potential to threaten the established order.
It is not my intention here to imply that Rashbam was taking a position in favor of any of the historical debates that would come centuries after his work. He does not mention the Midrash in his commentary either, and even though his position collaborates with its argument, he is guided by a literal (pshat) reading of the text. What this post is arguing is that perhaps, in the different approaches to creativity and authority that we find in the Nadav and Avihu story, we can see the seeds of both sides of some of the great debates in Jewish history.
The two stories juxtaposed so close to each other invite comparison. They both involve independent action on the one hand, and tension with Halachic authority on the other. And yet it is the differences that exist between Aaron's refraining from eating the Sin offering, and Nadav and Avihu's decision to offer an unsanctioned sacrifice that might throw light on how the Talmudic approach to the Nadav and Avihu story would read the Moses and Aaron discussion.
Firstly, in comparing the two stories, one must note that Aaron was right. Moses asked for an explanation and accepted it when it was given. Aaron was following the letter of the law. Nadav and Avihu were not. Another observation is that the disagreement in one case is intra-generational - Moses and Aaron are brothers, but with Nadav and Avihu it is inter-generational. If the Talmud is looking for lessons in Halachic creativity, it could learn that innovation in Halacha has to be built on the firm ground of previous generation's work. For the Talmud, Nadav and Avihu's innovation was outside the Halachic framework; Aaron's was inside it.