"The sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, each took his fire-pan; they placed fire in them and they placed incense on it; they offered before G‑d an alien fire that He had not commanded them. Fire came forth from G‑d and devoured them; they died before G‑d. Moses said to Aaron, "This is what G‑d had said, 'I will be sanctified by my near ones, and be glorified before all the people'" and Aaron was silent." (Lev. 10:1-2)

Nadab and Abihu were on a higher spiritual level than Moses and Aaron….

Read simply, this story seems to be about a tragic blunder in the midst of one of the holiest moments of history - a rash sin and a swift punishment. However, several factors suggest otherwise, primarily, Moses' statement in the third verse. In the words of Rashi, quoting the Midrash: "Moses said to Aaron, 'I knew that the Tabernacle 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!'" Nadab and Abihu were on a higher spiritual level than Moses and Aaron; their deed brought about the complete sanctification of the Tabernacle, which was not achieved by their elders.

They were drinking wine to open their minds, to reveal the essence of their souls….

Among the explanations given in the Talmud is that they entered the Tabernacle inebriated. Thus immediately after their death G‑d instructs the priests never to enter the Temple with wine on their lips. (This in itself implies that before this instruction it was permitted to drink wine.) Obviously, Aaron's sons were not simply enjoying a drink. They were drinking wine to open their minds, to reveal the essence of their souls. As the sages of the Talmud say, "Wine enters, secrets emerge." (Eruvin 65a)

Wine is also an allusion to the secrets of the Torah, of which they were partaking in large measure. This led to an experience in which they lost all sense of their physical beings, so much so that their souls left their bodies. As Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar explains, in their intense desire to cleave to G‑d they continued to rise through spiritual heights even as they felt their souls leaving them. Their death was not a punishment; they died in the same way Moses and Aaron died - with a divine kiss.

"…and they placed incense on it": This is the significance of the incense they offered. The incense was offered on the inner altar, paralleling the inner dimension of the heart: the soul, which is constantly bound up with its Source. As opposed to the animal sacrifices offered on the outer altar, which were about raising the animalistic aspects of the self, the "outer-self", to the level of Divinity - the incense offering dealt with and intensified what was already inside the realm of holiness: the soul's inner bond with G‑d. Thus the Hebrew word for the animal sacrifice is "korban", which means "to come close", implying the existence of one who is not close who merely comes close but does not become one with G‑d. The Hebrew word for "incense", "ketoret", also means "bound", implying that its practitioner is already one with his Source.

A commandment is only necessary for an individual who is outside the divine reality….

"…that he had not commanded": Nadab and Abihu took the incense experience to the extreme. They reached a state of oneness with G‑d wherein they were no longer a separate entity from Him, cleaving to Him. They achieved a oneness that gave them an intuitive knowledge of 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.

[Chassidut sees the sublimity of a mitzvah done without a command in those mitzvot that are technically "optional" as well (Likutei Sichot, vol. 32, p. 102, fn. 49)]

This is why their service completed the service of Moses and Aaron and sanctified the Tabernacle. Although the Divine Presence had already descended upon the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle 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.

"Fire came forth from G‑d…": The Tabernacle'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 Nadab and Abihu. 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 Tabernacle and achieving true oneness with G‑d.

[Adapted by Moshe Yakov Wisknefsky from Likutei Sichot, vol. 31, pp. 178-80; Likutei Sichot, vol. 32, pp. 100-3
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