Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXXII, p. 98ff;
Sefer HaSichos 5750, p. 428ff

A Moment of Drama

The seven-day dedication of the Sanctuary was over, and despite the expectations of the Jewish people, the Divine Presence had not become manifest. Even after the sacrifices were offered on the eighth day, the hopes of the people had not been fulfilled.1

Aware of the people’s disappointment, Moshe and Aharon entered the Sanctuary and prayed, and then “G‑d’s glory was revealed to all the people. Fire came forth from before G‑d and consumed the burnt offering.”2 In grateful acknowledgment, “the people saw this and raised their voices in praise.”3

Then two individuals sought an even deeper bond with G‑d. “Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his firepan, and placed fire and then incense upon it, and offered it before G‑d. It was strange fire which [G‑d] had not commanded [them to offer]. Fire came forth from before G‑d and consumed them, and they died before G‑d.”4

Moshe praised them in their death, telling Aharon: “This is [the meaning of] what G‑d said: ‘I will be sanctified by those close to Me and I will glorified before the entire nation.’ ”5 Rashi6 explains that Moshe told Aharon: “I knew that the Sanctuary would be consecrated by those in communion with G‑d. I surmised that this would be either me or you. Now I see that they are greater than we are.”

Insatiable Yearning

The passage is paradoxical. On one hand, the conduct of Aharon’s sons appears undesirable, as obvious from the punishment they received and as reflected in our Sages’7 discussion of “the sin of Aharon’s sons.”

But it also appears that there was a positive dimension to their efforts. For Nadav and Avihu had been designated for unique Divine service, and Moshe himself stated8 that they were greater than he and Aharon, and that it was through their sacrifice that the Sanctuary was consecrated.

This difficulty can be resolved based on the commentary of the Or HaChayim , who explains the death of Nadav and Avihu as follows:9

They came close to a sublime light with holy love, and died because of it. This is the mystic secret of “[G‑d’s] kiss” through which the righteous die. Their death was equivalent to the death of the righteous, [but] there was one distinction: It is the kiss which approaches the righteous, while in their instance, it was they who approached it …. Although they understood that they would die, they did not hold back from coming close, and clinging [to G‑d] in a sweet [bond] of love… to the extent that their souls departed.

Chassidic thought10 develops this concept, stating that our love for G‑d must involve two phases: ratzu, a powerful yearning for connection with Him, and shuv, a commitment to return and express G‑d’s will by making this world a dwelling for Him.11

As the Or HaChayim explains, Aharon’s sons had reached an all-encompassing level of ratzu, a longing to cleave to G‑d. This should have been followed by a turn toward shuv, expressing this bond in their lives.12 Their sin13 was not the closeness they established with G‑d, but the fact that the connection did not bear fruit; they died without having expressed this bond in the realm of ordinary experience.14 For G‑d’s intention is that the deepest levels of love for Him be demonstrated in an appreciation for the G‑dliness that inhabits every element of creation, and in serious efforts to enable this G‑dliness to become manifest.

The positive dimension of Nadav’s and Avihu’s striving is alluded to in the phrase “a strange fire which [G‑d] had not commanded [them to offer].” Their Divine service was “strange” and on such a high level that G‑d could not command the Jewish people to seek such a rung.

The closeness to G‑d which resulted from this Divine service “dedicated the sanctuary,”15 endowing it with the potential to inspire others to similar heights. For this reason, our Torah reading begins by mentioning “the death of the two sons of Aharon, when they drew close to G‑d.” The Torah reading focuses on the Divine service of Yom Kippur, the day on which every Jew “draws close to G‑d.” As an introduction, the Torah cites the closeness achieved by Aharon’s sons, for their act opened a channel enabling all Jews to connect to G‑d with such intensity.

Two Lessons, Two Names

In retrospect, the Divine service of Aharon’s sons provides us with two lessons: a) a positive one that every Jew has the potential to draw as close to G‑d as they did; and b) a negative one that such service alone lacks the vital element of shuv, application within the context of our world.

There are some who refer to this Torah reading as Acharei and others who call it Acharei Mos.16 It is possible to say that the use of one name or the other depends on which of the dimensions is chosen for emphasis.

Acharei means “after.” The height of connection reached by Aharon’s sons generated the potential for similar closeness in the Jewish people “afterwards”. Acharei Mos (“after the death of”), by contrast, places the accent on the negative outcome that resulted from the failure to complement closeness to G‑d with a commitment to develop an awareness of Him in this material world.17

A Single-Minded Bond

Lubavitch custom is to call the Torah reading Acharei, highlighting the closeness with G‑d that can be achieved by every Jew. For the core of every Jewish soul is at one with G‑d, inseparably linked. This bond surpasses that established through the observance of mitzvos, for although mitzvos create a bond between the commanded and the Commander, the two remain separate entities. In essence, however, the Jews and G‑d are absolutely at one, and this is the level of consciousness which surfaces on Yom Kippur.18

On this plane, a Jew’s obedience to G‑d is not a matter of choice for which there is reward or punishment but a purely natural response, a simple expression of the inner self. As Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev would say, it is not a commitment to observance which prevents a Jew from eating on Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, which Jew wants to eat?!

And from Yom Kippur, this connection can be continued Acharei, “afterwards,” shifting the entire spectrum of observance to a higher level. The inner connection between a Jew and G‑d can suffuse every aspect of life. When it does, the struggle of day-to-day existence cannot threaten dedication to the Eternal, for in this state, a mortal is continuously connected to G‑d, with no possibility of separation.

Mankind as a whole will experience such continuous connection in the Era of the Redemption, when the G‑dliness which permeates the world will be revealed: “The world will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d, like the waters that cover the ocean bed.”19 Surrounded by manifest G‑dliness, mankind will naturally, and spontaneously choose to obey His voice.