In this week's Parsha, we read about one of the most perplexing events of the entire Torah. Seemingly for bringing a strange fire to Hashem, two of Aharon's sons, two out of the five Kohanim who had been inaugurated during the seven days of dedication of the Mishkan in full view of all of Bnai Yisrael, were suddenly killed by Hashem (ויקרא י':א'-ב').
Countless Meforshim suggest answers as to why Nadav and Avihu were deserving of death. It is interesting to note that the Pesukim seem very clear as to the specific act that caused the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, namely, the offering of that fire. It is therefore very strange that our Meforshim find it necessary to give so many different answers as to the actual cause of their deaths. Many of their answers, in fact, do not really answer the question.
The Midrashim, in different places, supply many answers which themselves beg for explanation. The Midrash Tanchuma cites four famous reasons for their deaths: First, they were drunk when they entered the Kodesh HaKodashim, an opinion also quoted by Rashi (לפסוק ב' שם). Second, they did not wash their hands and feet before they entered. Third, they did not wear all the priestly garments (they were lacking the מעיל, the outer coat). Fourth, they had not married, thereby ignoring the commandment to procreate. In VaYikra Rabbah (פרשה כ' סימן ח'), we find an additional reason, namely, that they did not consult one another, meaning that they had no unity, as we indeed see from the Posuk (שם), which says that they each brought their own sacrifice. Rashi (שם) quotes a second answer from the Gemara in Eiruvin (דף ס"ג.), namely, that Nadav and Avihu rendered a decision about Halacha in the presence of their Rebbe, Moshe; one who does this, according to the Gemara in Berachos (דף ל"א:), is חייב מיתה, deserving of death. Elsewhere in VaYikra Rabbah (שם סימן י'), some suggest that their death was actually their belated punishment for a sin committed earlier at Har Sinai, where, as emphasized by Rashi (לשמות כ"ד:י"א בד"ה ואל אצילי), they were among the "אצילי בני ישראל," the elders of Bnai Yisrael, who ate and drank when Hashem revealed Himself to them, an act which, according to the Ramban (שם) and others, was a terrible sin, deserving of death. The Gemara in Eiruvin (שם) and in Sanhedrin (דף נ"ב.) also answers, that Nadav and Avihu were anxiously awaiting the day of the demise of Moshe and Aharon, so that they could take over, and Hashem reacted to this behavior by saying, in effect, "We'll see who dies first!" Finally, Rabbeinu Bechaye writes that they mistakenly thought that the fire that came down from Heaven was not powerful enough to burn both the Korbanos and the incense, so they "helped" Hashem by burning the incense for Him.
Each of these reasons, though, is very difficult to understand, for none seems to be adequate enough to explain why they should die, and why they had to die now, in front of everyone, in a dramatic, tension packed situation. In the first place, the law about not entering into the Mikdash while drunk had not yet been issued. Second, the failure to wash their hands and feet is not even hinted at in the Pesukim! As for missing one of the priestly garments, the מעיל, the outer coat, was a garment worn only by the Kohein Gadol, not by ordinary Kohanim, so why should they wear it? Fourth, if not being married was a problem, why did Hashem choose them to be Kohanim in the first place? Similarly, what law had been made that the Kohanim had to do things together? And where have we seen the law thus far that one may not Pasken in the presence of one's Rebbe? And if they were punished because of what happened at Har Sinai, why, out of all times, was now the time that Hashem decided to mete out the punishment, and why were the other "אצילי בני ישראל" not killed with them? It thus seems that the answers supplied by the Midrash and the Meforshim do not answer the question adequately.
In order to understand these answers properly, we should not view them as the actual reasons for their death, but rather as faults which made the sin they committed possible. Outstanding individuals such as these two, who were hand-picked by Hashem, could not have fallen prey to such a cardinal sin of bringing a "strange fire" into the sanctuary unless there had previously been something wrong with their attitudes and characteristics which allowed them to do so.
Perhaps, then, we may understand the answers provided by the above Midrashim and Meforshim in the following manners. Drunkenness disturbs the mind. Only when in a confused state of mind could these holy people have committed such a terrible sin. Similarly, not washing one's hands and feet is symbolic of not preparing one's body to do its holy service, which is what led them ultimately to commit this sin. So too, the priestly garments, especially the outer garments, are meant to shield one's self against outer influences, namely the Yeitzer Hora; failing to protect oneself from those powers leaves one susceptible to his will. So too, one of the purposes of the מעיל, the outer coat, was that it aroused the Kohein Godol to the awareness of Hashem's presence, as explained by the Meshech Chochmah, so it seems that they lacked this awareness, which was tragic. Similarly, to perhaps explain this more symbolically, they may have lacked certain character traits which are essential to a Kohein, demonstrated here by the lack of the Kohein's clothing. Likewise, regarding not marrying and having children, the Midrash in VaYikra Rabbah (שם סימן י') reports that this act was a sign of arrogance, because they apparently did not consider anyone good enough to become their wives. These characteristics would certainly then give Nadav and Avihu the nerve to think that they could do anything they want in the Kodesh HaKodashim. The Kesav Sofer writes that their main mistake was that they thought that they were as great as Moshe, who did not bring up his children because his job left no time for them; their mistake was that they equated themselves to Moshe, and gave themselves more credit than they deserved.
Because they showed a lack of unity, Hashem, who usually shows mercy to those close to Him, instead punished them right away. Where there is no unity, Hashem does not suspend punishment. Regarding their making Halachic decisions in the presence of their Rebbe, doing so is consistent with a spirit arrogance, of thinking that they were on the same level as Moshe, and thus able to make up their own rules. By rejecting what was taught by Moshe, who had the greatest Mesorah directly from Hashem, as indicated by the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (פרק א' משנה א'), they seemed to be rejecting that Mesorah, and replacing it with one of their own, where they could make up new Korbanos and fires, a tragic mistake. Similarly, awaiting their own flesh and blood's day of demise shows their shrewdness and deceit, and their actions may therefore have been a means of trying to "steal the show;" it was this ambition which made them confused and unable to act properly in a place where proper action is necessary. Rabbi Yitzchok Cohen explains that an essential part of their sin was that they tried to be what they were not yet; although they may have eventually become the Moshe and Aharon of the next generation, presently they were not, and they therefore had no right to act as if they were. Similarly, by not believing in Hashem's total power, they were denying an essential fundamental belief that Hashem is indeed all-powerful; Hashem thus proved them "dead wrong."
According to this approach, the reasons cited above by the Meforshim are therefore not the actual grave sin which they were killed for, but they rather were the causes of the sin.