The portion of the Torah read this week opens with the description of the rituals of Yom Kippur practiced in the Holy Temple. Usually, G‑d's commandments are prefaced by the introduction, "And G‑d spoke to Moses, saying…." In this instance, however, a time frame is given for this communication:
And G‑d spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they approached G‑d and died. And G‑d said to Moses…." (Lev. 16:1-2) This refers to the incident described in parashat Shemini (Ibid. 10:1-2) in which Nadab and Abihu, the two elder sons of Aaron, were killed by a flame of fire that burst forth from the Holy of Holies and entered their nostrils when they offered incense that G‑d had not commanded. In the following passage, the Arizal discusses why the two sons of Aaron died.

Regarding Nadab and Abihu, let us note that the letters that spell the name "Nadab" [nun-dalet-veit] may be rearranged to spell "four sons" [in Hebrew, "ben dalet", with the letter dalet signifying the number four]. Thus, his name alludes to the "four sons of which the Torah spoke" [as mentioned in the Passover Haggadah]: Adam and his three sons [Cain, Abel, and Seth].

In the course of its discussion of the commandment to retell the story of the Exodus, the Passover Haggadah points out that this commandment in phrased in the Torah four different ways. The four ways are seen as responses to four different types of Jewish children; the story must be retold to each child in accordance with his level of understanding and approach to Judaism.

Instead of rectifying the sin of Adam and his sons, Nadab and Abihu repeated it…..

Here, the Arizal uses the phrase from the Haggadah "The Torah spoke of four sons" to refer to the four male members of Adam's immediate family mentioned in the Torah. (We are told that Adam had more sons besides these three, but they are not mentioned by name and are therefore not considered spiritual archetypes.)

All four were included in Nadab and Abihu, for the two of them were considered one person inasmuch as they were not married.

Since Adam and his sons sinned, their souls needed to be reincarnated so their sins could be rectified in their next lifetime. Nadab and Abihu were the collective embodiment of these four primordial souls. The sages of the Talmud say that an unmarried individual is only half a person, so since these two were not married, they together were counted as one individual.

The name Abihu also alludes to Adam, since it may be split into the two words "he is my father" [in Hebrew, "avi- hu", i.e. my first progenitor].

These two committed the same sin that Adam committed. This blemish was that of "strange fire", i.e. a foreign woman. This refers to the first Eve, Lil--, who copulated with Adam before [the real] Eve. This is why Adam said [about Eve], "this one shall be called "woman" (Gen. 2:23): "this one" and not the other one.

Instead of rectifying the sin of Adam and his sons, Nadab and Abihu repeated it. A sin causes a "blemish", or imperfection, in the spiritual worlds. This imperfection has repercussions throughout all Creation and must therefore be rectified.

The Torah refers to the incense that Nadab and Abihu offered as a "strange fire". The linguistic and thematic connected between "fire" and "woman" will be explained presently.

An angel is the personification of some holy emotion, a demon is the personification of some evil emotion….

Lil— is a female demon. (Isaiah 34:14; Eiruvin 100b; Shabbat 151b; Bava Batra 73b; Nidah 24b) Just as an angel is the personification of some holy emotion, a demon is the personification of some evil emotion. In this case, Lil— (whose name is related to the Hebrew word for "night", "lailah") is the personification of man's sexual lust as divorced from any context of true love or desire to increase G‑dliness in this world - in other words: raw, self-indulgent, self-serving sensual pleasure. Man is intended to engage in sexual pleasure as a spiritual pursuit that gives pleasure to his wife, makes him into a more holy person, and increases the Divine Image on earth (ideally by resulting in children). When instead, he engages in sexual release simply for the "high" he enjoys from it, he is said to be copulating with Lil--. Although he does not intend to procreate by this union, he does so anyway, for every act of man has its repercussions on some level. The semen he expels "impregnates" Lil--, and she "bears" for him "demon-children", i.e. negative, abusive, and evil energy, which spreads evil throughout the world.

According to the Midrash (Alfa Beita d'Ben Sira), Lil— was Adam's first wife, created out of the earth just as he was. She insisted on lying on top of Adam during intercourse, and when he refused, insisting that it was more proper for him to lay on her, she left him and was transmuted into a demon.

Sexuality and sexual passion can promote and actualize a man's or woman's innate Divine potential….

We mentioned previously that the dichotomization of mankind into male and female was G‑d's way of assuring proper balance between the male drive to retreat into abstract unity with the Divine and female drive to manifest G‑dliness in this world. The glue which holds these two opposite drives together, enabling them to rectify reality properly, is the attraction or passion they have for each other, each one sensing that the other one is its true complement and completion. Allegorically, then, Lil--'s insistence on lying on top of Adam would be the tendency for this attraction to seek to become an end in itself. Sexuality and sexual passion can promote and actualize a man's or woman's innate Divine potential as nothing else can, but the fascination with its very power can divert a person's focus from its true purpose and cause him to focus instead on the ecstatic experience itself.

Although Lil— is not mentioned explicitly in the Bible, she is alluded to by the way Adam reacts to Eve when he first sees her. Calling Eve "this one" implies that there had been another one who had not been worthy of being called "woman".

Our sages alluded to this when they said that Adam stretched his membrane in order to cover his reproductive organ. (Sanhedrin 38b) This is a euphemism meaning that he copulated with his first "Eve" [i.e. Lil--], and sired many evil spirits and demons through her.

The purpose of circumcision is to reduce the raw, sensual titillation of intercourse and increase the sensitivity to the organ to that of the person's partner. In this way, copulation becomes less of an exercise in self-indulgence and more an expression of true love and bonding (which, of course, serves ultimately to enhance the sensual side of intercourse far beyond what is possible when it is treated as a selfish, epicurean thrill). Stretching the membrane over the glans, then, indicates the individual's rejection of this higher vision of sexual relations in favor of the base, selfish, sensual high it can provide. Again, this is the sort of sexuality symbolized by Lil--.

This was Adam's "strange fire". For both man and woman are essentially fire when they lack the divine name Y-ah [spelled yud-hei].

Man and woman are fully man and woman only when together they manifest the Divine Presence….

"Fire" here means desire or passion. The Hebrew words for "man" (spelled alef-yud-shin) and "woman" (spelled alef-shin-hei) are both grammatically based on the word for "fire" (spelled alef-shin); the word for "man" includes an added yud, and the word for "woman" an added hei. The two added letters, yud and hei, together spell the divine name Y-ah.

In other words, man and woman are fully man and woman only when together they manifest the Divine Presence. Without this, they remain nothing but two separate cauldrons of unbridled passion.

When, however, the divine name Y-ah is amongst them, this is their true union and true fire.

When the G‑d is present in the couple's sexual relations, their union is not superficial, ephemeral, and merely physical, but a true spiritual bond that forges them into one, complete person. As we said, the fire of passion in this proper union between husband and wife enhances their physical passion for each other far beyond what is possible in the lack of this spiritual dimension.

However, when the divine name Y-ah is removed, all that remains is the "strange fire." (Sotah 17a) This is what Adam [originally] preferred.

Nadab and Abihu committed this same error, [and it was very grave] since there were none in their generation that could compare to them.

Witnessing the profound revelations of G‑d that accompanied the dedication rites of the Tabernacle, Nadab and Abihu, like the rest of the Jewish people, were overcome with emotions of holy ecstasy. This is illustrated by the verses:
And Moses and Aaron went into the Tent of Meeting, and came out and blessed the people. And the glory of G‑d appeared to all the people. And a fire went forth from before G‑d and devoured the burnt offering and fat parts that had been placed on the altar, and all the people saw it, and they sang in ecstasy, and fell on their faces. (Lev. 9:23-24)

Inspiration, upliftment, and ecstasy are, of course, essential ingredients in a person's spiritual life. They are, however, only half of the story. Their true fulfillment comes when the person uses his inspiration to make the world a better, holier place. Instead of viewing this ecstasy as only one side of the coin of divine service, however, Nadab and Abihu sought to remain in it. To use the idiom of Ezekiel 1:14, they wanted to "run" but not "return". The sacrifice in which they chose to express this, incense, is the most "spiritual" of all the sacrifices.

On a somewhat more refined level, this is essentially the same mistake (or "sin") that Adam made when he opted originally for Lil--. Self-indulgent sexuality has its own ecstasy, and it could even be called a "spiritual" ecstasy. But because it is ecstasy for its own sake, it is ultimately egocentric and "evil". Therefore, Nadab and Abihu were punished just as Adam was punished. Their punishment, like all divine punishments, was not a mere chastisement or vengeance but a direct result and outcome of their misdeed: They sought the ecstasy of the soul and shunned the experience of life in the body, so their souls left their bodies to rejoin their divine origin, leaving their bodies lifeless corpses.

They also sinned by [offering sacrifices] while drunk.

Immediately after their death, G‑d commanded Aaron not to enter the sanctuary precincts while drunk. (Ibid. 10:8-11) This, our sages state, alludes to the fact that his two sons died because they were performing the sanctuary service while drunk.

Adam sinned this way, also, for, as our sages say, Eve squeezed grapes and gave him [the juice] to drink together with its dregs. (Bereishit Rabbah 19:5) [The juice and its dregs] were [the fruit of] the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

The primordial sin… is the aggrandizement of the ego….

The primordial sin - partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil - is seen in the eyes of our sages not as one, specific act, but a conglomerate of several. The common denominator of these is the aggrandizement of the ego, the transformation of man from a pure channel of divinity into the world into a self-oriented agent with his own egocentric agenda.

There are four opinions as to what the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was (interestingly, there is no opinion that it was an apple, although the Garden of Eden is spoken of as being an apple orchard). According to one opinion, it was a grape vine, and Eve squeezed wine out of the grapes to give to Adam. The dregs of the wine are the elements of ego within the experience of ecstasy, which poison the experience and make it self-serving. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is the admixture of pure experience with that of ego. In everything he does, man may choose either to seek his own self-gratification or selfless dedication to elevating the world. By choosing self-gratification, man increases the opaqueness of the world to G‑dliness; by choosing pure experience, he renders reality more transparent, revealing more of its innate G‑dliness.

He chose not to drink the good wine, which has no dregs, and "gladdens G‑d and man". This wine is spoken of as "gladdening G‑d", for the divine name used here [Elo-him] signifies severe judgment, and [drinking good wine] transforms it into gladness. The other, [impure] wine, is called "a cup…of wine fully mixed…the wicked ones of the world will drink and suck its dregs." (Psalms 75:9)

Choosing to relate to reality not through the clouded lens of ego renders the world more fit to receive divine blessing. It thus figuratively transforms G‑d's attribute of judgment and limitation to that of benevolence and happiness.

Adam sinned additionally in wanting to draw all the nations under the wings of the Divine Presence. This caused all the suffering that befell him and has befallen us throughout our exile. Moses also erred this way, and therefore had to die in the desert. King Solomon also erred by encouraging conversion.

As we have explained previously, the psychology and innate orientation of the non-Jew is that of sustaining perfecting the functioning of the world. This is their role in the big picture of making the world into a home for G‑d. The problem is that they, too, suffered a fall in the wake of the primordial sin, and this altruistic drive is manifest in most people as the drive for a more material and comfortable standard of living.

Adam, Moses, and King Solomon all erred in thinking that if the non-Jews were converted to Judaism, the Jewish drive for spirituality would combine with the non-Jewish drive for physical perfection. This would, they thought, have the double effect of objectifying the Jewish spiritual drive, keeping it from degenerating into egocentric ecstasy, and spiritualizing the non-Jewish physical drive, keeping it from degenerating into egocentric materialism. However, they each erred in their own way, not realizing that for this to work the non-Jew must initiate the process by himself.

Let us return now to our original discussion. As we said, Adam sinned with his "strange fire" and by drinking the wine with the dregs. These dregs were [personified] by the [fallen] non-Jews who sought to cling to him.

As we said, the non-Jewish psyche suffered a fall with the primordial sin as well, becoming overtly egocentric. In this state, they are symbolized by the dregs of egocentricity that spoil the wine of pure experience as well as by Lil--, the demon of egocentric sexual thrill.

Nadab and Abihu were also drunk. These two sins ["strange fire" and inebriation] are alluded to in the first verse of this Torah-reading. The initials of the words for "after the death of the two" [in Hebrew, "acharei mot shnei", alef-mem-shin] may be rearranged to spell "from fire" [in Hebrew, "m'eish", mem-alef-shin]. The final letters of the three words for "the two sons of Aaron" [in Hebrew. "shenei benei Aharon", yud-yud-nun] spell "wine" [in Hebrew, "yayin"]. If the two words for "death of the two" [in Hebrew, "mot shnei"] are read backwards [yud-nun-shin-tav-vav-mem], they contain the word for "they drank" [in Hebrew, "shatu", spelled shin-tav-vav]. This verse thus alludes to both sins.

It follows that they attempted to rectify the sin of Adam, but they instead made the same mistake as he, and therefore died. They were each half of Adam's body, so to speak, and they effectively died two deaths: their own and his [again].

[This, too, is alluded to in the verse:] "…after the death of the two sons of Aaron", which refers to their death in their present incarnation. "…When they approached G‑d…" - i.e. aforetimes, "…and they died" - in the time of Adam.

This is also why Moses comforted Aaron by saying that Nadab and Abihu were greater than either of them. For they were incarnations of the father [Adam], while Moses and Aaron were incarnations of Abel [Adam's son].

Translated and adapted by Moshe-Yaakov Wisnefsky from Sefer HaLikutim, parashat Acharei Mot; subsequently published in "Apples From the Orchard."

Reprinted with permission from Chabad of California. Copyright 2004 by Chabad of California, Inc. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this work or portions thereof, in any form, without permission, in writing, from Chabad of California, Inc.