This week’s Parashah is marked by an unprecedented mixture of spiritual loftiness and emotional and ironic tragedy. Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aharon HaKohein, are consumed by a fire and killed instantly in the Kodesh HaKodashim, the holiest place on earth (VaYikra 10:2). The Pesukim, along with the comments of Chazal, tell us that Nadav and Avihu entered the Kodesh HaKodashim with Ketoret without permission, all while being intoxicated. In his commentary on the Torah, Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch quotes a Sifra on Parashat Shemini (Mechilta DeMilu’im 32) which suggests that Nadav and Avihu’s conduct was arrogant in nature. According to the Sifra, they did not even question their actions when they entered the Kodesh HaKodashim. How could this be? How could two people do something so bold and something so dangerous, all while not even muttering a word to each other throughout?
Although Nadav and Avihu’s actions were arrogant and obscure, perhaps the motivation behind those actions were very sincere and can teach us a valuable lesson.
This week’s Parashah marks the end of the eight day ceremonial dedication of the Mishkan. Imaginably, this was a time of divine revelations of massive proportions. In his Sichot HaRan, Rabi Nachman of Breslov perfectly describes what many people feel when they experience these types of revelations and realizations about Hashem’s greatness. In Sichah Aleph, Rabi Nachman explains that it is very difficult for people to describe these experiences in words or expressions, because these experiences are fleeting and do not last forever. Even Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon HaKohein, struggled spiritually as the Chanukat HaMishkan came to a close. Hashem left Nadav and Avihu wanting for more.
What was wrong with pursuing their seemingly pure desires and ambitions? The answer to this question can be found in the next Sichah of Rabi Nachman, Sichah Bet (based on the interpretation of Rav Moshe Tzvi Weinberg of Yeshiva University). Rabi Nachman explains that at times, a person has spiritual ambitions and objectives that he wishes to fulfill. While those desires and ambitions are very important, there will be times when uncontrollable circumstances do not allow him/her to achieve them, and it is at those times that a person should not fall into despair and frustration. In order to serve Hashem, sometimes we must do what Hashem wants us to do, regardless whether or not we want to do it. This is the hidden lesson of Nadav and Avihu’s story. Nadav and Avihu thought that they had to serve Hashem by always being underneath His limelight. They thought they always had to be on a spiritual high. Their mistake was in not seeing that even in a lower spiritual state, they would always have the potential to serve Hashem. All they had to do was keep an ear open to what Hashem expected from them.
In introducing the story of the students of Rabi Akiva (Yevamot 62b), the Gemara says in the name of Rabi Yehoshua that one who teaches Torah in his youth should also teach Torah in his old age. Not only does this statement signify the importance of Talmud Torah, but it also signifies the importance of Avodat Hashem as a whole. We must serve Hashem throughout our entire lives – both during spiritually high moments, as well as during moments in which we are lacking in our spiritual connection to Hashem.