"Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and placed incense upon it, etc." (Lev. 10:1)

If Nadab and Abihu were guilty of death at the hands of G‑d, why were they not allowed to reach the age of 60, as is customary in such cases? It seems that the reason was to demonstrate that G‑d is sanctified by those close to Him, and this was a suitable occasion to demonstrate this principle.

Vayikra Rabba (chap. 20) explains that when Titus entered the inner part of the sanctuary and pierced the dividing curtain with his sword, blood flowed from the curtain; yet he left the Temple unharmed. Aaron's sons however, entered in order to offer a sacrifice to G‑d - not to disgrace - yet they were killed on the spot. The Midrash adds that this is the meaning of the verse "After the death of the two sons of Aaron…". (Lev. 16:1) The staff of Aaron had been a dry stick of wood when it was placed inside the Tabernacle after the uprising of Korach. Yet when it emerged it was full of sap! This is the meaning of the verse "This is what makes my heart tremble and jump from its place." (Job 37:1)

What precisely is bothering the author of this Midrash? After all, Aaron's staff had not brought strange fire into the Tabernacle? Why should the fact that it emerged full of sap be so surprising? Also the example of Titus is not so surprising. Was this the first time that G‑d did not prevent His or our enemies to blaspheme without striking them dead on the spot?

One…cannot treat the Holy of Holies as if he were at home there…

Why did the author of the Book of Job put these words into the mouth of Elihu then? How can this be the meaning of the verse "After the death of the two sons of Aaron", as the Midrash claims?

The verse quoted above (Job 37:1) reflects the awesome lesson which Rabbi Acha and Rabbi Zeira convey in the Midrash: even one as holy as Aaron cannot treat the Holy of Holies as if he were at home there, i.e. to come and go as he pleases. Although his [lifeless] staff can enter and come out alive [full of sap, the equivalent of life for a plant], he himself enters at the risk of death.

The author of this Midrash clearly felt that the mere "beholding of G‑d" is equivalent to entering the Holy of Holies uninvited by its resident owner [G‑d], and this consideration is the key to the whole story. If it were merely a matter of the strange fire, of what significance would the story about Titus piercing the dividing curtain and the blood spurting forth from the Holy of Holies be?

The sons of Aaron, though they had entered there with the intention of serving G‑d, were killed, whereas Titus, who had warred against G‑d, emerged unharmed. In case we were to argue that Titus was not harmed because he appeared in the Temple at a time when G‑d had already decreed its destruction, the fact that the dividing curtain spurted forth blood was to show that G‑d most certainly did mind what Titus had done.

But G‑d suppresses His wrath on occasion, something He does not do when the sinner is the type of person who had once achieved closeness to Him. From all this it follows that the very first reason cited, namely Nadab and Abihu's behavior during the revelation at Mount Sinai, as well as the last reason cited (unauthorized entry to the holy of holies) are really two sides of the same coin, are essentially the same thing, undue familiarity with G‑d.

[Translated and adapted by Eliyahu Munk.]