The Midrash provides a long list of explanations as to why Aaron’s sons died, ranging from the mundane to more lofty aspects: They entered the Holy of Holies, they brought unauthorized fire, they were intoxicated by wine, they were unmarried, they were haughty, and so on.1

Some of the explanations, along with the plain meaning of the verse, “when they drew near before G‑d,”2 have a common denominator: The cause of the sin was overfamiliarity with G‑d and His service.

The problem of overfamiliarity is a constant problem for those who stand before G‑d and especially for the Priests in their role as G‑d’s servants. The focal point of the Temple is the daily worship known as the “Order of the Service.” The courtyard, where the Outer Altar stands and where the Order of Service is performed, is essentially a platform that is elevated above the general public; the courtyard of Israel and the women’s courtyard are situated below, and the large congregation assembled there merely stands and looks on, whereas it is the Priest who performs the bulk of the service. The Priests operate not only within the Temple courtyard but also behind the scenes; they are part of the whole process. They know all the routines and are familiar with everything that goes on.

Generally, a Jew would visit the Temple infrequently, on a festival or at some other time, and he would approach his encounter with great awe and reverence. By contrast, the Priest is constantly in the Temple, where he is personally involved in the process more than anyone else. He is like a member of the household, and that is precisely where his problem begins. He is so involved and such an insider that he inevitably starts to become overfamiliar with the proceedings. The Priests even have their own entrance to the Temple, and they come and go as they please; they even sleep in the Temple. Thus they are exposed to the danger of overfamiliarity, of insensitivity resulting from being so closely involved. When you are the expert, and others constantly rely on you, this situation breeds presumptuousness.

One can see how such a state can develop and deteriorate in the conduct of the sons of Eli. Eli’s sons did not make light of the Service of the Tabernacle. They had faith, when it was necessary they went off to war, and they fulfilled their duty in protecting the Ark of the Covenant. But in the Tabernacle routine they acted haughtily. For example, a woman who had just given birth to a son would come to Shiloh, where the Tabernacle was then located. She has good reason to come, and good reason to be excited as well; this is a momentous experience. The Priests, however, are tired; they have already witnessed scenes like this thousands of times, scenes with which they are thoroughly familiar. And so the Priest goes up to the woman and immediately asks: “What about the meat?” He acts like a butcher in a butcher shop. Why does he act so insensitively? The Priests have spent their whole lives in the Tabernacle, and as a result, they feel like members of the King’s household, and after a while, their fear and awe disappear. This does not mean that household members are never faithful or that they always have contempt for the proceedings, but they do run the risk of becoming habituated and overly familiar insiders.

Jaded because of nearness

The sin of Aaron’s sons stems from their living within this familiarity, this habitual sense of comfort in their surroundings. When they enter the Holy of Holies without authorization, or when they bring unauthorized fire, or when they enter while intoxicated by wine, they do so because they feel that they are part and parcel of the system. Those who enter the Sanctuary are encouraged to first make preparations and immerse 310 times, and even after all that a sense of fear should still remain. The Torah states that “the firstborn was Nadav.”3 Presumably, Nadav felt that he was already the High Priest. So he opens the door, moves the curtain and enters. The fact that this is a place where entry is strictly forbidden simply does not register with him, precisely because he is constantly so near.

In the Tabernacle, this problem is even more pronounced than in the Temple, because in the Tabernacle there is no sense of mystery. In the Temple, there is one chamber that is off-limits, the Holy of Holies. In the Tabernacle that was built in the desert, the place of the Holy of Holies was previously a patch of desert like any other. Over one patch of desert the cloud suddenly stops, and the order is given to assemble the Tabernacle. If this spot is too grassy or stony, the structure is moved a bit. Here shall stand the Holy of Holies, here shall stand the Holy and here shall stand the Altar.4 While the Priests may understand, intellectually, that from now on it is forbidden to pass through the curtain, that it is forbidden to enter the holy place, and that one who enters the Holy of Holies is liable to receive the death penalty, it was likely difficult for them to feel this abrupt change in status.

Still, why is the sin of drunkenness treated so severely? They simply wanted to celebrate, to conduct a housewarming for the Tabernacle. If they then drank a little too much and entered the Sanctuary, is this really so problematic?

The problem of jadedness due to habituation is universal. When a person encounters death for the first time, it is a shocking experience; the first time one has to deal with a human corpse, one is usually frightened and shaken. But after being involved in this kind of work for a certain amount of time, jadedness begins to set in: The scribe begins to step on his holy parchments and the gravedigger begins to drag corpses from place to place. When a person holds a Torah scroll for the first time, it is a profound experience, but if you are the one who sits and makes the scrolls, and you are constantly surrounded with parchment, it becomes difficult to maintain the same feeling of awe and reverence as at the beginning.

A non-Jewish scholar writes in a work on Tanach that Psalm 145 is one of the most beautiful verses that he has ever seen. Now, one who recites this psalm three times a day or more will find it very difficult to appreciate its beauty in this way, at most noticing that it is an acrostic. What is the source of this limited appreciation? It is not because he does not know it by heart, but precisely because he knows it by heart. The Kotzker Rebbe reportedly explained the words of the piyut, “Beauty and eternity pertain to the One who lives forever,” that when a person looks at something beautiful a hundred times, it stops being special in his eyes. Beauty that lasts eternally pertains only to the One who lives forever.

This problem applies in more mundane matters as well. In our society, there exists a subdivision among religious Jews: a group of people who call themselves benei Torah (followers of the Torah). In ostensible contrast to their merely “religious” counterparts, these people consider themselves truly devoted to the Torah in all seriousness. The problem that this group experiences is the same problem that underlies the sin of Aaron’s sons – overfamiliarity.

These benei Torah do not pray only once a year when the spirit moves them. They do not go to the synagogue only when there is a family tragedy; they go daily, three times a day. They are occupied with the Torah constantly. But because they are wrapped up in all this and live in the midst of all this, the danger arises that, little by little, they will become jaded by overfamiliarity. After a while, these people do not and cannot feel the emotions that spiritual novices feel. Why do our emotions run so high on the festivals and the Days of Awe? Because they come once a year, and we do not become desensitized to them. It is hard for a person to feel, three times a day, that he is standing before G‑d. When someone who has never before been in a synagogue comes to visit, it sometimes happens that he is very moved by the experience. But when one regularly comes and goes, it becomes part of one’s reality, part of one’s daily routine.

Someone once complained to me that despite his great interest in mysticism over the years, he always remained “on the outside” and never actually underwent any kind of mystical experience. He added, “The only thing that I have from all that I did is that every time that I say ‘Shema Yisrael,’ I feel a quiver.”

Now, this person is no rabbi, and is certainly not considered pious. Yet how many truly pious Jews can say that every time they recite “Shema Yisrael,” they feel a quiver? The reason this happens is that we are too near, too habituated; even the holiness of the recitation of Shema has become banal and mundane.

A similar phenomenon exists also in Israeli society, regarding the hateful things that Jews often say about other Jews. If non-Jews were to attack and criticize Jews as harshly as Jews do to one another, this would no doubt provoke a great uproar. This phenomenon is not simply a result of baseless hatred; it is partially the result of the feeling that “I am among my own people.” Precisely because we are so close to one another, we tend to disregard the constraints and limits of civility.

“I will be sanctified through those near to Me”

Moses said to Aaron: This is what G‑d meant when He said, I will be sanctified through those near to Me; thus I will be honored before the entire people.”5 G‑d is essentially saying that Nadav and Avihu are members of His household; they are children who grew up in His yard. Even if it would seem that they do not deserve such a punishment, “He puts no trust even in His holy ones.”6 The Talmud states that G‑d calls those who are close to Him to a strict accounting even for matters as slight as a hairbreadth.7 Because of their closeness, they in particular must be held to a strict accounting, because even a hairbreadth can lead them off the straight path.

A similar story can be found in the haftara of Parashat Shemini, in the account of the death of Uzza.8 And it is again the same story in the account of the death of the people of Beth-shemesh, who “looked into the Ark of G‑d.”9 There, we see that the Philistines perceived the Ark as a source of awesome fear and fright, whereas for the Jews, the Ark could be treated lightly and irreverently.

A similar incident occurs at the revelation at Sinai, ­immediately after which the Torah says, “And upon the nobles of the People of Israel He laid not His hand; they beheld G‑d, and they ate and drank.”10 The Midrash interprets that “they” refers to Nadav and Avihu, who ate and drank out of this feeling of overfamiliarity, and that G‑d delayed their punishment so as not to spoil the joy of the giving of the Torah.11 Many have asked: Why, then, did G‑d choose to postpone the punishment until the joy of the eighth day, the day of the dedication of the Tabernacle? Could He not have waited a few more days? As G‑d was certainly not afraid that they would escape from Him, so what was the hurry?

The difference is that the revelation at Sinai was a one-time event, anomalous and unconnected in its background and context. By contrast, the Tabernacle is where all of Israel will subsequently come to bring korbanot. All the more so in the wilderness, when the Tabernacle’s role was even more central, as all shechitah took place in the Tabernacle, even when it was for the sole purpose of eating meat. Precisely there it was important to stress that “I will be sanctified through those near to Me” – that overfamiliarity can have grave consequences.

Overfamiliarity is ruinous to the person himself, and it leads to even greater ruin for others. Those who live in the midst of it can no longer discern what they are doing, but to others it appears to be unpardonable coarseness. While the Priest may experience the deterioration of his inner life, the layman looking on from afar experiences the fracture of his whole spiritual essence, because for him the Priest is the ultimate spiritual role model. Those who sit in the beit midrash are not so outraged, because they are already aware that not everyone who sits there is supremely holy. But for those for whom the Priest represents a kind of spiritual perfection, to see such a person acting disrespectfully is a desecration not only of his personal essence but of the whole cause that he represents.

The Talmud states that “a careless error in [Torah] study is considered deliberate,”12 and “credit is not extended in the desecration of G‑d’s name.”13 In the case of the desecration of G‑d’s name, G‑d grants man no extensions, and he is punished whether he acted deliberately or inadvertently, and perhaps even whether he acted willfully or under duress: “For G‑d will bring to judgment every deed concerning every hidden thing.”14

In light of this, “I will be sanctified through those near to Me” is a warning directed precisely at those who are close and have been drawn near, who are constantly in the inner sanctum. They must always be aware that they stand before the holy. In their case, the penalties must be far more severe, so that “I will be honored before the entire people.” They must remember why the Holy of Holies bears that name, and that the partition that separates the earthly realm and the holy realm must remain in place, even if they cross that boundary several times a day. To be sure, this presents a great challenge; it is much more difficult for a physician to feel the pain of others, and it is much more difficult for a gravedigger to maintain a high level of respect for the dead.

Unlike in other cases, in the case of the sons of Aaron, G‑d, as it were, goes to the trouble of burning them Himself – “Fire came forth from before G‑d.”15 This is because Nadav and Avihu did something that is so understandable in itself but is so awful in its consequences for all involved. It is understandable because it is ingrained in man’s nature, and its consequences are awful because they damage one’s inner core. It is for this reason that the Torah views the sin of overfamiliarity with such seriousness.

The test of the priesthood

Every person, in one respect or another, draws close to G‑d, and one must always remember that even though he may know what goes on behind the scenes, he must not lose the feeling of respect and awesome reverence; he must not feel that he is exempt from the duty of keeping his distance. This is certainly one of the most difficult requirements to fulfill. After one has already grown accustomed to being inside the Sanctuary, the true test is if one can still retain the attitude of an outsider, for whom the Sanctuary is still on a different plane. Is one capable of being on both sides simultaneously – to be inside, and nevertheless to feel like an outsider who has entered for the first time, knowing nothing of the experience?

There is a perpetual partition between the sacred and the profane, between the awesome and the ordinary. For the Priest, this partition is not smaller, but it is more difficult for him to abide by.

This tension exists in numerous diverse areas, all of which present the test of the priesthood: To what degree can one stand very close and yet remain in a state of awe and reverence, dread and trembling?

To straddle both sides simultaneously is nearly impossible; it is certainly one of the most difficult things that a person can do – yet that is what is required of a Jew. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov comments that in order to achieve this, one must be simultaneously extremely old and yet, in a sense, completely infantile. This requirement is against human nature, but nevertheless, as Jews we are called upon to do just this.

Burning of the soul

The simple explanation of “when they drew near before God and died”16 is that G‑d strikes these people and, as a result, those who are near recoil, and He is thus sanctified.

Sometimes, however, those who draw near suffer an even worse type of death: an internal death. The Talmud says of Aaron’s sons: “Only their souls were burned, but their bodies remained intact.”17 This kind of death can befall any of us today as well – one continues to fulfill mitzvot, to sway during prayer, but his soul has burned up and left him. “When they drew near before G‑d,” their souls were burned, “and they died.”

There is a tradition that it is a mitzvah to weep when speaking of the deaths of Aaron’s sons. Indeed, one should keep this in mind, for it is truly worth crying over a spark of holiness that was lost.