In this week’s Parsha, Parshat Shemini, the Torah statesותצא אש מלפני ה' ותאכל אותם וימתו לפני ה' “And a fire came forth from before Hashem and consumed them, and they died before Hashem” (10:2). In the Pasuk, “them” is referring to Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, who were consumed by fire and killed. But why were Nadav and Avihu killed?
Rashi quotes Rabbi Eliezer who says that Nadav and Avihu were killed because they rendered a Halachic decision in the presence of Moshe, their teacher. Rashi also quotes Rabbi Yishmael who gives a different answer. He says that Nadav and Avihu died because they entered the Azara while intoxicated. The Torah hints at this by Hashem’s warning the rest of the Kohanim, only a few Pesukim later, not to enter the Azara while intoxicated (10:9).
The Ramban, contrary to Rashi’s opinion, says that the mere fact that Nadav and Avihu did not have the proper Kavana when they brought the קטורת was enough to cause Hashem to kill them. Ramban cites the story of קרח as a proof to his opinion. When קרח and his gathering challenged Moshe, they were instructed to bring the קטורת ,the same Korban that Nadav and Avihu brought, along with Moshe to see whose Korban Hashem would accept. As we know, Moshe’s Korban was accepted and Korach’s was rejected, due to Korach’s lack of proper Kavana.
The Gemara (Bava Metzia 59b) presents the following story, which illustrates Ramban’s concept of proper Kavana.
Rabban Gamliel, who was the head of the Bait Din at that time, excommunicated Rabbi Eliezer, who happened to be his brother-in-law. Since Rabbi Eliezer was put in Cherem (excommunication), he was forced to Daven alone at home until the ban was lifted. When Rabbi Eliezer’s wife found out about this, she tried to stop her husband from reciting Tachanun every morning, since she knew that with the proper Kavana a request made during Tachanun by her husband would be fulfilled by Hashem. She feared that while reciting Tachanun, her husband would become upset at Rabban Gamliel and wish that he would die. Consequently, Rabbi Eliezer’s wife found a daily excuse to disrupt him while he was reciting Tachanun, not allowing him to have proper Kavana. This went on until one day when Rabbi Eliezer’s wife thought it was Rosh Chodesh, a day when we do not say Tachanun, and therefore did not come in to disrupt her husband’s Kavana. However, she erred in her calculations and it was in fact not Rosh Chodesh, and so Rabbi Eliezer davened Tachanun with full Kavana. Because of Rabbi Eliezer’s wife miscalculation, her brother Rabban Gamliel passed away the next day.
We see from this story of Rabbi Eliezer and the story of Nadav and Avihu in this week’s Parsha how important it is to have proper Kavana when serving Hashem. The one day that Rabbi Eliezer was able to have his desired Kavana he used it in the wrong way, resulting in the death of Rabban Gamliel. Similarly, Nadav and Avihu’s misplaced Kavana while bringing the קטורת resulted in their own deaths. We should learn to properly control our Kavana to have our Tefilot granted by Hashem.