1. The Death of Nadav and Avihu

Our reading begins with the verse: "And the L-rd spoke to Moses, after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near to the L-rd and they died" (as related in Leviticus 10, in the Parshah of Shmini). The final words, however present a difficulty. Why does the Torah add "and they died" when it has already said, "after the death of the two sons of Aaron?"

The Midrash, in giving an explanation of their death, cites the following explanations: They entered the Holy of Holies; they did not wear the priestly garments necessary for their service; they did not have children; and they did not marry. Our second question now arises: What is the source of the Midrashic account? Where, in the Torah, are these four faults alluded to?

Further: How can we suppose that Aaron's two sons, Nadav and Avihu, were guilty of sin? The Midrash relates (based on Leviticus 10:3) that Moses said to Aaron, "Aaron, my brother, I knew that the Sanctuary would be sanctified by those who were beloved and close to G‑d. Now I see that they — Nadav and Avihu — are greater than both of us." If this was so, how could they have sinned?

2. A Fatal Ecstasy

There is a Chassidic explanation that Aaron's two sons did not "sin" literally. Their "sin" was to allow their desire to cleave to G‑d to mount to such an intensity that they died. Their bodies could no longer contain their souls. Thus the Torah says "when they drew near to the L-rd (with such passion that) they died." And this was counted as a sin! For although a Jew must divest himself of material concerns, at the moment when he stands poised at the ultimate ecstasy of the soul, he must turn again to the work that the soul must do within a physical existence.

It is written in the Ethics of the Fathers (4:22): "Against your will you live." Set against the desire of the soul to rise beyond the world, is its task of creating a dwelling-place for G‑d within the world. Nadav and Avihu achieved the ecstasy but not the return. This was their sin and the reason for their death. They "drew near to the L-rd and they died." They allowed their spiritual passion override their this-worldly task. They went beyond the world and beyond life itself.

This act lies at the heart of each of the four faults which the Midrash ascribes to them.

They "entered the Holy of Holies," the innermost reaches of the spirit, without thinking of their return to the outer world.

They "did not wear the (priestly) garments." Their concern was to divest themselves of the world and to become purely spiritual. They forsook the necessary "garments" in which the word of G‑d is clothed, the Mitzvot, the physical actions that sanctify a physical environment.

They "had no children" and "did not marry." That is, they did not fulfill G‑d's command to "be fruitful and multiply" and to bring new souls into the world. They did the opposite. They withdrew their own souls from the world.

All their faults stemmed from a single misconception: that the Jew draws close to G‑d by withdrawal instead of involvement. In fact, both are necessary. And that is why, at the point of the year when we are most powerfully taken out of the world — Yom Kippurwe begin the reading of the Torah from these verses, as a reminder of our ultimate task.

3. Entrance and Exit

Rashi explains that the command, "that he (Aaron) come not at all times into the holy place . . . (but) with this shall Aaron come into the holy place," comes immediately after the statement of the death of his sons, to warn that his (and our) service of G‑d should not be like that of Nadav and Avihu.

A question arises here. Can we really demand of a person at the point of ecstasy, that he return to his mundane role? If his experience is genuine, if he has reached the love of G‑d "with all your might" and has broken through all barriers of separation between man and G‑d, can he hold himself back at the very point of union, and re-immerse himself in all the constraints of the human situation? Is there not an emotional incompatibility between the absolute abandonment of a person to G‑d and a constant vigilance not to go too far?

The answer lies in how a person begins his spiritual journey. If he sets out with the intention of satisfying his own desires, however exalted they are, he will not wish to turn back from his private ecstasy to the needs of the world. But if he sets out in obedience to G‑d's command, knowing that though "You shall love the L-rd your G‑d . . . with all your might," nonetheless "He created (the world) not to be empty, he formed it to be inhabited" (Isaiah 45:18), then within his ecstatic approach to G‑d, the desire ultimately to return and sanctify the world will always be implicit.

There is a famous story in the Talmud. Four men entered the "Grove" (the mystical secrets of the Torah): Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher and Rabbi Akiva. Ben Azzai looked and died. Ben Zoma looked and was stricken (with madness). Acher mutilated the shoots (i.e., became an apostate). Rabbi Akiva "entered in peace and came out in peace."

On the face of it, the important difference between Rabbi Akiva and the other three was in how he came out of the "Grove." Why does the Talmud emphasize that he "entered in peace?"

But the truth is that how each of the four entered, determined how they emerged. Ben Azzai entered seeking ecstasy, not return; therefore he "looked and died." (It is interesting to note that his Divine service was generally characterized by aspects of withdrawal — see Talmud, Yevamot, 63b; Sotah, 4b. Cf. Shulchan Aruch Harav, Hilchot Talmud Torah, beg. ch. 3, in Kuntres Acharon..)

But Rabbi Akiva entered "in peace," in obedience to the Divine will and seeking to unite the higher and lower worlds. That is why he came out in peace. His intention of returning was implicit at the outset of his path to religious ecstasy.

This, too, was how Aaron was to enter the Holy of Holies, in fear, obedience and self-abnegation. And in this way he was able to "make atonement for himself and for his house" and to say a prayer for the sustenance of Israel, each of them acts of concern for the world.

4. Experience Into Action

All the Torah's narratives have a teaching which is applicable to every Jew, not simply to the outstanding few. What, then, is the universal significance of the story of Nadav and Avihu? Surely not everyone can reach a level of ecstasy where one's life is in danger. A few need the warning; but what of the many?

But every Jew is sometimes awakened to an intense religious experience, especially on Shabbat and the Festivals, more particularly during the Ten Days of Repentance, and above all on Yom Kippur. He is for a while taken out of his daily routine, his normal anxieties, and inwardly rises beyond his usual mental confines.

It is at these times that he must remember that whatever he experiences when he enters this holy domain must be carried with him when he returns to his everyday world. He must not seek ecstasy for its own sake, but for the sake of the subsequent return. A religious experience must not be left as a memory; it must remain active in animating the whole of his life. Like Rabbi Akiva, he must enter and come out "in peace," that is, bringing G‑d and the world closer together in harmony.

5. The Blessing of G‑d

This connection between the manner of entering and of leaving the realm of holiness, applies not only to the service of the Jew, but also to the material world itself. For all the Jew's needs, material as well as spiritual, come to him directly from G‑d: "If you walk in My statutes and keep My commandments and do them, then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield her produce..." (Leviticus 26:3-4). Only through his bond with G‑d does the Jew receive his material needs. He who says "It will be well with me for I will walk in the stubbornness of my heart" is always in the last analysis proved mistaken.

And this is intimated in our Parshah, describing the procedure of the High Priest's service. It was only after he had entered the Holy of Holies that he was able to pray for and secure the sustenance of the people.

So it is that the public world that the Jew inhabits, and the private world of his religious experience, are intrinsically related. For if he draws his experience into the world, the world is thereby sanctified by man and blessed by G‑d.