Last week’s Parsha closes with the seven days of preparation for the inauguration of the Tabernacle. The eighth day arrives at the beginning of Parshat Shmini with the consecration of the Tabernacle and the Cohanim finally take on their profession. Aaron and his sons prepare the sacrifices, Aaron then blesses the people and Hashem provides the flame to burn the offering. However, the celebration is suddenly curtailed by tragedy. At the start of Ch 10 we are told that the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire pan and offered an alien fire and a flame came down from Hashem and struck them down. The question of what exactly they did wrong in not made clear and has presented opportunities for interpretation and interestingly some of the commentators of recent generations reflect the environment of their times.
Rav S R Hirsch (1808-1888) often uses the theme of “Torah with Derech Eretz” which can viewed as a firm belief in the orthodox way of life but nevertheless combined with the participation in the modern world. Here he presents Nadav and Avihu as two young men try to create their own religious order rather than abiding by the code laid out by Hashem. This hints at R Hirsh’s uncompromising battle against the reform movement emerging in Germany and he was warning of the consequences of changing and making up a new framework for Judaism.
The Netziv (1816 – 1893), suggests that Nadav and Avihu entered the Tabernacle with overwhelming desire and burning enthusiasm of love for Hashem. However, the Torah is expressing that even though love for Hashem is precious he does not desire it in a way which has not been commanded. This is probably a veiled criticism of Chassidic fervor, which was not much to the Netziv’s liking, which he saw as “alien fire.”
The Netivot Shalom (Slomin Rebbe – 1911-2000) explains that Nadav and Avihu were the two most learned of that generation and they felt that this gave them the right to take over the leadership from Moshe and Aaron. He views this as an indication of importance of deference to the leader, who may not be the most learned but is probably wiser and more experienced. The Slonim Rebbe interprets the word he in the verse that they offered alien fire to refer to Moshe not Hashem, who had not commanded them. They did not wait for the ok from the leader and stresses the importance of adherence to the leader – that is “The Rebbe” in the Chassidic world.
The Sefat Emet (The 2nd Gerer Rebbe – 1847 – 1905) notes the priestly blessing given by Aaron just prior to the tragedy. Our Cohanim when they bless us, start the procedure (as we do in many mitzvot) – “asher kidishanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu,” who has sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us. We are required to perform what we are commanded and not to add or change. The Cohanim were set apart and given a religious mission with a set of tasks by Hashem and their job is to perform that work (havoda) and not to add to it.
Not related, but for the last few days of Pesach we were in the North and had the pleasure of attending a sefaradi minyan. On Friday night to my surprise at Lecha Dodi they all stood up and turned sideways to the right. Puzzled, I asked afterwards and told that is the custom. I thought about it and realized that in the North of Israel the Ark faces south so they turned to the West whereas most of us face east so we turn around to the west to back of the Shool. Looking in several sefaradi and ashkenazi siddurim there are many different customs – face the back, face the west, when to stand up etc., will write about one day.