The last Perek of Parashat Mishpatim contains a rather cryptic account. In Shemot 24:9, Moshe, Aharon, Nadav, Avihu, and the 70 elders ascend Har Sinai. In the next Pasuk, they “see” Hashem, and the subsequent Pasuk tells us that Hashem does not strike them down, they see Hashem, and then they eat and drink. The Perek then moves on to a conversation between Hashem and Moshe, seemingly unrelated to the previous story. How are we to understand what happened when all those characters “saw” Hashem?
The Meforashim suggest two nearly opposite approaches to this story. Rashi (24:10-11) views their actions as having been negative, explaining that it was improper for them to so blatantly perceive Hashem. Rashi views Pasuk 11, which states that Hashem did not strike them down, as evidence that they in fact deserved to be struck down. Rashi believes that their eating and drinking was symptomatic of their lack of respect for such a sacred moment.
Now, if Rashi is correct that what Moshe, Aharon, Nadav, Avihu, and the elders did was so egregious, it seems odd that there does not appear to be any consequence for their actions mentioned in the Pesukim. Rashi deals with this issue by positing that they, in fact, were deserving of death, but Matan Torah was too joyous an occasion to be marred with so many leaders being killed (24:10 ad loc. VaYir’u Eit Elohei Yisrael). Instead, Hashem “waited” for another opportunity to kill them all – Nadav and Avihu, when they brought the foreign flame in VaYikra 10, and the elders in the story of the Mitonenim in BeMidbar 11:1. Although this solution accounts for the leaders’ not being punished, this explanation of their punishment is questionable.
Many other explanations are given as to what Nadav and Avihu did in Sefer VaYikra to deserve death. In terms of the elders, it is not even clear if they were killed in the aforementioned story. Rashi (BeMidbar 11:1 s.v. BiKetzei) Midrashically understands the word “BiKetzei,” “the corner,” in BeMidbar 11:1, as meaning “BeMukatzin,” the leaders. In addition to the fact that this is certainly not the Peshat of the Pasuk, Rashi on that Pasuk suggests another Midrashic reading, and he also presents the aforementioned approach that he writes in Sefer Shemot.
Other Meforashim view the elders’ ascending Har Sinai in a positive light. Targum Onkelos (Shemot 24:11) understands that they did not actually eat and drink but rather felt so much joy for their revelation that it was as if they ate and drank. Ramban (ad loc.) deals with the fact that the Pasuk states that Hashem did not strike them down, which at first glance would seem to be a solid proof for Rashi’s negative approach. Ramban harkens back to 19:24, where levels are designated for how far different groups are allowed to ascend Har Sinai. What the Pasuk teaches us, Ramban writes, is that nobody overstepped his boundaries and therefore, Moshe and those accompanying him were not deserving of being stricken down. As to why they ate, Ramban understands that they were eating Korbanot, a quite appropriate reaction to the preceding events. Ibn Ezra (Peirush HaAruch) quotes Rabi Yehudah HaLeivi as writing that the Pasuk is informing us that, unlike Moshe, who was able to be sustained for forty days without eating or drinking, the other leaders, despite the awesome Divine revelation, still needed to eat and drink.
Now, the fact that the Meforashim can take such diametrically opposed approaches is, of course, significant from a Parshanut perspective. Methodologically, it is important to note that each approach had to explain how every detail in the Pesukim made sense with his overall understanding. I believe that one can take a lesson that is more personal than the aforementioned analysis. We often make snap judgements of situations and how people act in them. We should be cautious and recall that there are many factors that go into every situation that arises, and it behooves us to reserve judgment until we know all the facts and consider all the factors that may be motivating people to act the way that they are.