"When they came close before the L-rd and died…" (Lev. 16:1)

One of the most enigmatic events in the Torah is that of the deaths of Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu. What exactly did they do? Why did they do it? The Torah itself says only that they offered: "an alien fire, that He had not commanded them". According to the commentators, their death was a punishment for various sins, such as entering the temple after having consumed wine.

A closer look, however, reveals that these two men were of great spiritual stature, even greater than Moses and Aaron. As the Midrash says (cited in Rashi): "Moses said to Aaron, 'I knew that the Temple would be sanctified by one of G‑d's intimates, but I thought it would happen through me or you. Now I see that they are greater than us!'"

The Kabbalistic explanation is as follows:

The Hebrew word "ketoret", meaning "incense", connotes union (being associated with the word "kesher", meaning "knot"). Unlike the outer altar, which was "outside" and whose purpose was to elevate and "bring close" the animalistic, the inner altar and the incense offering dealt with and intensified what was already inside the realm of holiness: the soul's inner bond with G‑d.

[The term used for offerings on this outer altar is "korban", which means "bringing close".] Nadav and Avihu…achieved a oneness that gave them an intuitive knowledge of the Divine will…

Nadav and Avihu took the ketoret experience to the extreme. They reached a state of oneness with G‑d where they were no longer a separate entity from Him cleaving to Him. They achieved a oneness that gave them an intuitive knowledge of the Divine will. Thus they offered an offering "that He had not commanded", for a commandment is only necessary for an individual who is outside the Divine reality.

They reached a level of oneness that granted them awareness of the Divine will, thereby precluding the need for commandment. Indeed they entered the Temple after having "consumed wine". Wine is often used as a metaphor for the secrets of the Torah as in the adage, "Wine enters, secrets emerge" (Eruvin 65a). They were "drunk" with spiritual insight, overwhelmed with Divine inspiration.

As the Ohr Hachaim explains, their death is seen not as a punishment but as a "divine kiss, like that experienced by the perfectly righteous".

This is why their service completed the service of Moses and Aaron and sanctified the Temple. Although the Divine Presence had already descended upon the Temple, the Temple and the Divine Presence remained two separate entities.

This paralleled the service of Aaron, who had done all that he was commanded but had not reached the level where commandment was superfluous. He had remained separate from G‑d albeit fulfilling His will and in reflection of his service the Divine Presence descended upon the Temple but did not become one with it.

The Temple's sanctification, the achievement of oneness with G‑d, required an "alien fire", one that was different than any previous service. This was the service of Nadav and Avihu. This in turn elicited a fire from G‑d that surpassed the first fire that descended through Aaron's sacrificial service, the outsider's service. Only his sons' spontaneous and instinctive offerings were capable of sanctifying the Temple and achieving true oneness with G‑d. 1

The fifth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Dovber, writes:

Sudden death, Heaven protect us, is caused by a revelation of light from the soul that the body's vessels are unable to receive and contain due to the abundance of light. This is also the condition of "Death by Kissing," (this is the way Aaron passed away. Moses, who witnessed Aaron's death, wished such a death for himself.2) where there is a revelation of such intense light from above that the body's vessels cannot contain it. The soul then ascends and becomes enveloped in and attached to [the light] on high. This is also what occurred with the "three elders who died in the Idra [literally "granary", or "chamber", the place where Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his colleagues would gather to discuss mystic matters]. (Yom Tov shel Rosh Hashanah 5659) Thus a vessel is only considered genuinely selfless when it is in tune with Heaven's true intention…

Rabbi Shalom Dovber refers to a story in the Zohar about an intense mystic journey turned fatal experienced by Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai and his circle:

When these [mystic] matters were revealed [by Rabbi Shimon], heaven and earth shook and a voice declared: "Sublime matters have been revealed below!" And while these [men] were basking in those matters, their souls departed with a kiss…and the angels took them… Ten entered [the Idra] and seven left…. Before the chaverim (members of the mystic circle) left the chamber, Rabbi Yose Ben Yaakov, Rabbi Chizkiah, and Rabbi Yeisa died….

Rebbe Shimon cried out: "Perhaps, G‑d forbid, it is decreed that we be punished, for through us has been revealed what has not been revealed since the day Moses stood at Mt. Sinai!"

…He then heard a voice: "Fortunate are you Rebbe Shimon…for to you has been revealed what has not been revealed to all the supernal hosts… Rebbe Shimon said: "How fortunate are these three [that passed away]…"

They [the survivors] arose and went…the faces of all of them shone and people were unable to look at them…." (Zohar III:144a)

Rabbi Shalom Dovber continues:

Such a revelation [that causes death] can at times be triggered by the body's vessels, i.e. when the body's vessels are overly stimulated in a state of yearning. This elicits a light that cannot be manifest in the body's vessels.

This is similar to the death of Aaron's sons. "When they came close before the L-rd" (Leviticus 16:1) means in a state of yearning. But, due to the inadequacy of their vessels, they died.

In fact [the act of Aaron's sons] was considered a sin, since "not for chaos did He create [the world]; He formed it to be settled" (Isaiah 45:18). The death of Nadav and Avihu is considered "sinful," whereas "death by Divine kiss" is generally seen as a positive experience.

Note also that the "the three elders" are praised by Rebbe Shimon.

The Ohr Hachaim explains, "The righteous die when the divine kiss approaches them, while Nadav and Avihu died by their approaching it…"3

Rabbi Shalom Dovber continues:

Thus a vessel is only considered genuinely selfless when it is in tune with Heaven's true intention. Its yearning should be in a way that will elicit a lofty light that will find expression in a manner of "shov".

Rabbi Shalom Dovber refers here to the concept of "ratzo" and "shov"- "yearning" and "return" - the constant pull of the soul towards heaven (ratzo) and its mandate to remain earthbound to fulfill its mission (shov).

So yearning to transcend the physical is not only permissible, it is necessary…

So yearning to transcend the physical is not only permissible, it is necessary. But the yearning must be premised on "shov" ["return"] and imbued with selflessness.

The Talmud (Chagigah 14b) relates that four sages "entered" the sublime sphere called Pardes, "Orchard," but only Rabbi Akiva emerged spiritually and emotionally intact. In the words of the Talmud, "Rabbi Akiva entered in peace and left in peace." By describing the manner in which he entered [which does not seem to be pertinent to the story], the Talmud implies that his peaceful emergence was the result of his peaceful entrance. i.e. since his initial motivation for entering the Pardes was predicated on selflessness and the intention of "shov", his "ratzo"came to a positive conclusion. (Likutei Sichot vol. 3:990)

Even in recent generations, many mystics experienced outer-body experiences but like Rabbi Akiva returned to their earthly state.

The sixth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, related the following about his father, the great kabbalist and Chassidic master, Rabbi Shalom Dovber Schneerson, known as "the Maimonides of Chasidism":

"When Father and I were in Vienna, our rooms were adjacent to each other, an open door stood between our rooms. Father gave me some manuscript to transcribe and sat on the couch. (This was at about five o'clock in the afternoon.) He had one foot up on the couch and one on the floor, a cigarette between his fingers. I approached him a few times and saw him sitting there motionless, his eyes open. He remained in that position until 3:45 in the morning. Then he awoke, looked hastily at the cigarette and threw it away. He took his watch and in amazement saw the time. He approached the window and then said to me, "It seems it is already evening and the time has come for the Evening Prayer". I told him that almost the entire night had already passed. I also had to remind him of the date (!)since he was completely removed from the world. We were then learning the commentary of Ramban on the Bible and he began asking me in a roundabout way about what we were to study, and I realized that he was trying to determine what day it was" (Reshimot 94).

The seventh Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, once related this story adding that some say it was then that Rabbi Shalom Dovber contemplated the concepts that formed the foundation of the deepest and longest series of his discourses, the series known as Ayin Beit. The Rebbe added that Rabbi Shalom Dovber had then experienced a form of "kelot hanefesh", where the soul leaves the body (Reshimot 8).

The Rebbe compared this to the experiences of Nadav and Avihu, and that of Rabbah and R. Zeira. [The Talmud (Megilla 7b) relates that the Talmudic sage Rabbah once got very drunk on Purim and "slaughtered" Rabbi Zeira and later revived him from death. When Rabbah invited Rabbi Zeira the next year, the latter declined the invitation, saying: "It is not every time that a miracle occurs."

Raba (meaning "big" or "great"...) revealed too much to Rabbi Zeira (meaning "small") and thereby caused the death of the latter.

The commentators struggle to explain this mysterious story. However, in Chasidic literature the story is seen as an example of kelot hanefesh, where the soul escapes from the body due to an overwhelmingly spiritual and mystic experience. In this case, Raba (meaning "big" or "great" and thus connotes a large capacity for ecstatic experience while remaining earthbound) revealed too much to Rabbi Zeira (meaning "small") and thereby caused the death of the latter.4

As other examples of such experiences in recent generations, the Rebbe cited an incident that occurred with the Alter Rebbe who after studying a particularly sublime Kabbalistic concept with Rabbi Avraham "the Angel" (son of the Maggid of Mezrich), immediately went and ate a "bagel with butter". He felt that without it his soul would have left his body.

As another example of such transcendence achieved by the Chasidic masters, the Rebbe related that when the Rebbe of Modzhitz had to undergo surgery, he sang a meditative melody and entered its "depth" and was therefore oblivious to any pain.

For people of our caliber, we can strive to attain at least some degree of aloofness from physical consciousness, even if only in imitation of these great mystics. (See Likutei Sichot 27:273-6.)

Adapted by Yosef Marcus.

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