The tenth Perek of Sefer VaYikra is a strange one. Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aharon HaKohein, bring an unsolicited Korban Ketoret into the Mishkan and Hashem consequently kills them with fire. Moshe confides to Aharon that this was Hashem’s plan all along, and proceeds with business as usual; he has his cousins move the bodies out of the Mishkan and tells Aharon and his remaining sons to continue the Avodah rather than mourn their dead family members. In the meantime, Hashem tells Aharon not to drink alcoholic beverages while doing the Avodah. Then Moshe gets upset that Aharon and his sons burnt the Korban Chatat of Bnei Yisrael instead of eating it. Aharon retorts “Hein HaYom Hikrivu Et Chatatam VeEt Olatam VaTikrena Oti KaEileh; VeAchalti Chatat HaYom, HaYeitav BeEinei Hashem?” “Today they brought their Korbanot Chatat and Olah and this happened to me; if I eat the Chatat today, would Hashem be happy?” (VaYikra 10:19). Upon hearing this, Moshe changes his mind and agrees with Aharon.
What on earth is happening in this Perek? Why do Nadav and Avihu bring the Ketoret? Why is Moshe so unsympathetic to Aharon and his family? Why does Hashem tell Aharon not to drink? Why do Aharon and his sons not eat the Korban Chatat when they are supposed to do so? And what is the meaning of Aharon’s reply to Moshe?
To explain this Perek, we must first acknowledge one of the central themes of the Perek: Kedushah, holiness. The word Kedushah, in one form or another, appears in this twenty-Pasuk Perek eleven times, and the expression “Lifnei Hashem,” “before Hashem,” also signifying holiness, appears another six times.
Kedushah is completely personal; it is the process of one person bringing himself or herself as close as possible to Hashem.
Nadav and Avihu want as much Kedushah as they can get--they bring Ketoret Lifney Hashem, a fire emerges from Lifney Hashem, and they die Lifney Hashem (10:1-2). Everything they do is between them and God.
So, are Nadav and Avihu successful in their quest for Kedushah? You might think that they are unsuccessful because they both die. But Moshe tells Aharon that they were indeed successful, that the deaths of Nadav and Avihu brought Kedushah to Hashem (10:3). In fact, Rashi (ad loc. s.v. Hu Asher Dibeir) explains that Moshe tells Aharon that Nadav and Avihu were closer to Hashem than even Moshe and Aharon. Moshe sees the deaths of Nadav and Avihu not as a tragic failure but as a tremendous act of Kedushah.
Aharon is not so sure.
Aharon does not disagree with Moshe’s understanding of Nadav and Avihu’s deaths--at least, he does not disagree enough to say so--but he does not seem enthralled either; the Pasuk tells us that in response to Moshe, “VaYidom Aharon,” Aharon is completely silent (10:3). This is the silence of a grieving father, the silence of a man who is unsure whether his beloved sons died as heroic martyrs or as unwanted trespassers in God’s house.
Who better to resolve this confusion than Hashem Himself?
Immediately after this incident, Hashem speaks directly to Aharon (10:9), telling him not to drink intoxicating beverages while doing the Avodah, in order “Lehavdil Bein HaKodesh UVein HaChol, UVein HaTamei UVein HaTahor,” “to differentiate between holy and profane, between unclean and clean” (10:10). Since Rabbi Yishma’el in the Midrash tells us that Nadav and Avihu were drunk when they offered the Ketoret (VaYikra Rabbah 12:5), the direct interpretation of this command to Aharon is that it is a condemnation of Nadav and Avihu because their drunken minds clouded their judgment. (This contrasts to Moshe Rabbeinu’s support for Nadav and Avihu.) However, Hashem’s explanation of this Mitzvah reflects on the meaning of Kedushah itself. The truly fascinating part of Hashem’s explanation is the prima facie assumption that there should be a difference between Kodesh and Chol, that a category of things that are not Kadosh should even exist. Why should anything ever be less than perfectly Kadosh when we are all striving to become closer and closer to Hashem?
But God says no. The lesson He imparts to Aharon is that the category of “Chol” is absolutely necessary, and a clear mind is required to differentiate it from “Kodesh.” The fallacy of Nadav and Avihu, and to an extent, the fallacy of Moshe Rabbeinu, is that they did not understand that Chol is important, that a person cannot be Kadosh all the time. They did not understand that Mitzvot Bein Adam LaMakom are not always paramount.
This explains why Moshe continuously pushes Aharon and his sons not to mourn and to continue the Avodah; after all, mourning is not Kadosh and the Avodah is, so mourning should be forbidden as long as there is Avodah to be done.
Only Aharon, with his newly advanced understanding of Kedushah, comprehends that this is not the case. Aharon intuits that even for the Kohein Gadol, the Kedushah of eating a Korban cannot transcend the emotional requirement of mourning for his sons on the day of their deaths. He understands that mourning is a Mitzvah as well, even if it is not as “Kadosh” as eating a Korban. This is the Halacha of Aninut--an immediate relative of a person who dies is exempt from all other Mitzvot.
When Moshe Rabbeinu hears Aharon’s explanation, he immediately relents and agrees with Aharon; the Gemara in Zevachim states that Moshe had heard this Halachah before, but he had forgotten it (Zevachim 101a).
Baruch Hashem, the Halachot of Aninut are applied infrequently. But this lesson that there are things more important than personal Kedushah is one that can be applied throughout
our lives. I do not mean to say, God forbid, that improving personal Kedushah is wrong; on the contrary, in the 38 years that Aharon served as Kohein Gadol, he did the full Avodah every day but this one. Great personal Kedushah is certainly admirable. However, Aharon teaches us that there should be more to our lives than just Kedushah; for example, Aharon’s non-Mikdash activity was teaching Torah to Bnei Yisrael (VaYikra 10:11). He could have spent that time learning alone or bringing more Ketoret to become more Kadosh, but he instead recognized the importance of helping other people learn to fulfill the Mitzvot. As Hillel says in Pirkei Avot (Mishnah Avot 1:12), “Heyu MiTalmidav Shel Aharon: Oheiv Shalom, VeRodeif Shalom, Oheiv Et HaBeriyot, UMekarvan LaTorah,” “Be a student of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving all people and bringing them closer to Torah."
May we all strive to be like Aharon, a man who maintained high levels of Kedushah while simultaneously catering to the needs of his emotions and his fellow Jews.