The account of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, who offer a strange fire before G-d, has been analyzed intensively by Biblical commentators, the majority of who seek an understanding as to what sin they commit to warrant such a punishment. The most fascinating insight is given by Rabbi Hertz, who relates the idea that no one, because of position or ranking, can flout the law, and must instead apply the moral standard demanded of that person by Jewish law and by Jewish mores.
The leader stands in a political way above the masses, not in a haughty way, but in terms of responsibility and accountability. It is not the sin so much that concerns the reader of this week’s Torah portion in understanding the dynamics underlying the untoward action taken by the sons of Aaron on this otherwise celebratory day marking the inauguration of the Kohanim into service and the dedication of the altar. Rather, their premature demise results from Nadav and Avihu’s failure to appreciate the, moral imperative that as leaders, they owe their allegiance to G-d and the people of Israel.
As Rashi indicates, the actions of Nadav and Avihu are not surprising considering that previously, as recorded in Exodus 24, they nonchalantly consider their divine encounter to be minimally important, as they â€˜eat and drinkâ€™ while perceiving G-d Rather than to be struck in awe at a scene not normally experienced by others, they feel that they are deserving of such Divine contact and lineage. On the day of dedication of the altar and the consecration of the Kohanim into service, they bring a strange fire, symbolic of their disregard for the law and commands of G-d substituting their own set of rules of how G-d, shall be served.
While their action on that important day seems trivial, the underlying notion behind it is of no minor consequence. Do leaders lead by the letter of the law, or by whim? This question invariably is asked too often, and for good reason. Corruption among the powerful is a violation of power. In the vagaries of day to day living, societies rise and fall on the integrity of their leadership. In Biblical times, the honour of G-d rests on the proper application of power demonstrated by its leadership. It is with that thought that Moshe quotes G-d saying, “I will be sanctified by those who are near me (Nadav and Avihu), and will be glorified and honoured before the people.”