The Death of Aharon's Sons

Our Torah reading begins with the verse:1"G‑d spoke to Moshe after the death of Aharon's two sons [Nadav and Avihu], who drew close to G‑d and died." One might ask: Why does the verse conclude "and died"? It begins by mentioning the two deaths.

The resolution of this question requires a comprehensive approach. The Midrash mentions several possible reasons for the two deaths. Among them:

a) they entered the Holy of Holies;2

b) they did not wear all the required priestly garments while offering their sacrifice;3

c) they had not married or fathered children.4

The questions arise: Where are the allusions to these sins in the verse? And more fundamentally, how was it possible for Nadav and Avihu to commit such sins? Our Sages state5 that Moshe had told Aharon:"I knew that the Sanctuary would be consecrated by the death of those close to G‑d. I thought it would be me or you. Now I see that they, [Nadav and Avihu,] are greater than us." How could individuals on such a spiritual plane commit such a severe sin?

Yearning and Returning

In Chassidus6 (and similarly, in the commentary of the Or HaChayim7), it is explained that the sin of Aharon's sons differs from sin as we usually understand it. Their sin involved allowing themselves to cling to G‑d so totally that their souls simply left their bodies. This is implied by the words"who drew close to G‑d and died," i.e., their drawing close to G‑d was the cause of their death.

This is considered a sin. Every Jew must endeavor to rise above material consciousness and reach hispashtus hagashmiyus.8 Nevertheless, this thrust towards spiritual ascent should be balanced. The yearning for G‑d referred to as ratzu should be coupled with shuv, dedication to Divine service on the material plane, fulfilling the mission of making our world G‑d's dwelling.

This is the intent of our Sages' statement:9"Against your will, you live." Instead of leaving our bodies, as they might like to do, our souls must shoulder the burden of refining the world and steering it towards its destiny. Nadav and Avihu rejected this mission, manifesting a yearning for G‑d with no downward thrust. This was their sin.

To highlight this concept, the verse states"and they died" although it already mentioned their death. What was their sin? That after they drew close to G‑d they died; they allowed their souls to expire. Their yearning was not balanced with a commitment to worldly service.10

Based on the above, we can now detect allusions to the sins mentioned by our Sages: They entered the Holy of Holies their yearning for G‑d without thought of worldly involvement propelled them further and further into the Sanctuary, without concern for any limits, beyond the possibility of return.

They did not wear all the required priestly garments. The term"garments" is used as an analogy for mitzvos,11 for our observance of mitzvos is enclothed in material entities. Nadav and Avihu did not devote themselves to the observance of mitzvos on the material plane.12 Instead, they desired to transcend this frame of reference and cling to G‑d in an utterly spiritual manner.

They had not married or fathered children. They did not endeavor to bring souls into this world. On the contrary, their Divine service had an opposite thrust: to rise above the body altogether.13

Fulfilling G‑d's WillRather Than Attaining Individual Heights

Rashi states that the purpose of the instruction:14"Do not enter the [inner] Sanctuary at all times…. It is in this manner that he should enter the Sanctuary" was to warn Aharon and his descendants not to engage in the kind of Divine service practiced by Nadav and Avihu, lest they suffer the same fate.

Our yearning for G‑d (ratzu) must be genuine. One must feel a complete and total commitment to Him, loving Him"with all one's might" (bichol meodecho).15 The Hebrew term meodecho מאדך is rooted in the word meod מאד , meaning"very," i.e., a person's love for G‑d must be excessive, taking him beyond his natural limitations. As long as one's love can be associated with a motivating rationale, or has limits, it is not"with all your might." The question thus arises: When a person is roused to a state of yearning that knows no boundaries, how can he prevent his soul from expiring, and instead return to serving G‑d on the material plane?

One must exercise caution in this regard from the very first stages of yearning for G‑d. A person's yearning must not be the result of a desire for personal good; one should not seek the satisfaction referred to in the verse:16"Closeness to G‑d is my good." Instead, one should desire to draw close to G‑d in order to carry out His will, to"love G‑d with all your might."

When a person's intent is not to satisfy his own personal desires, but rather to fulfill G‑d's will, he will sense the Divine intent present within material entities, as reflected in the verse:17"He did not create [the world] to be chaotic, but rather He formed it to be settled." And because of the person's identification with G‑d's intent, his yearning for G‑dliness will develop in a way that allows the ratzu to be balanced by shuv. After seeking unity with G‑dliness, he will again turn earthward, endeavoring to refine this material plane.

The above concepts let us understand a celebrated Talmudic passage:18

Four entered into [a mystic experience referred to as] the Pardes…. Ben Azzai glanced and died…. Ben Zoma glanced and was injured…. Rabbi Akiva entered in peace and departed in peace.

On the surface, the difference between Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues was noticeable only afterwards, when Rabbi Akiva"departed in peace." Why is it necessary to mention that he"entered in peace"? Seemingly, there was no difference between his entry and that of his colleagues.

The answer is that there was a difference, and this affected the manner of their departures. Rabbi Akiva approached this mystic experience in a different manner than his colleagues. Ben Azzai, who"glanced and died," manifested ratzu without the moderation of shuv.19 He entered into the Pardes with a yearning for G‑d that led to the expiration of his soul; to put it simply, he was not grounded.20 Similar concepts apply with regard to Ben Zoma.21 These Sages did not demonstrate a thrust of shuv afterwards because, when they entered the Pardes, they did not"enter in peace."

Rabbi Akiva, by contrast,"departed in peace," because"he entered in peace."22 He entered with the intent of fulfilling G‑d's will and establishing"peace between the heavenly fellowship and the earthly fellowship."23 Because he entered with this intent, he departed whole,"in peace."

On this basis, we can appreciate the purpose of the instructions:"Do not enter the [inner] Sanctuary at all times…. It is in this manner that he should enter the [inner] Sanctuary…. And he should atone for himself and his household." The intent is to caution against a thrust of ratzu without an accompanying movement of shuv.

For this reason, the command begins"Do not,"24 i.e., the emphasis is on self-nullification, that a person should not seek only personal closeness to G‑d, but rather should desire nothing else but the fulfillment of G‑d's will.

Thus"Do not enter the Sanctuary at all times," serves as a step leading to:"It is in this manner that he should enter the Sanctuary." The Hebrew word Zos, translated as"this manner," is interpreted by the Zohar25 as referring to awe of G‑d and bittul, which are"gateways ascending upward."26 Such an approach enables Aharon to enter the inner Sanctuary in a state of ratzu, and yet"atone for himself and his household," thus preserving the connection with his wife (the Talmudic interpretation27 of the word"household"). Indeed, based on this verse, our Sages state that if a High Priest is not married, he may not enter the Holy of Holies. For the ultimate purpose of a person's desire to come close to G‑d should be that the experience add vitality to his efforts to refine the material world.

This is reflected in the short prayer which the High Priest would recite directly after entering the Holy of Holies. Then he would solicit G‑d's blessing for success with regard to the Jewish people's endeavors to earn their livelihood.28

Where Our Spiritual Quest Should Lead

The word Torah is derived from horoah, meaning"instruction."29 All the stories related by the Torah provide instruction not only for an exclusive spiritual elite, but for every Jew. But it appears that the relevance of the story of Nadav and Avihu is indeed restricted to a select few. For seemingly rare is the individual spurred by such an insatiable thrust for G‑d that he has to be reminded that ratzu must be accompanied by shuv. What is the relevance of this story for the majority of the Jewish people, and since the Torah is relevant for all Jews to those whose spiritual level is below that of the majority?

This question can be resolved as follows: Every Jew becomes spiritually aroused from time to time. There are occasions for example on Shabbos or on the festivals when the spiritual influences revealed from above trigger a deeper connection with G‑d. This is especially true during the Ten Days of Repentance, a time to which our Sages applied30 the verse:31"Seek G‑d while He may be found." And within those ten days, Rosh HaShanah, and even more so Yom Kippur, stand out as times in which a Jew is inspired to rise above his ordinary concerns.

When a Jew on this earthly plane has his attention drawn upwards in a yearning for G‑d, he must realize that this ratzu must be counterbalanced by a movement toward shuv. The way he enters this spiritual experience relates directly to the way he will depart from that experience.

To state this concept in personal terms: The heights of inspiration which a person feels on Yom Kippur should not be separated from his ordinary worldly existence. Instead, a person must resolve to connect the spiritual arousal he feels on Yom Kippur with his day-to-day experience.

This resolve must be taken at the outset. A person must"enter in peace," i.e., one's goal should be the attainment of inner peace through a connection of his material experience with G‑d. This approach will enable him to"depart in peace," As a result of his spiritual experience on Yom Kippur, he will be able to pursue his worldly endeavors"for the sake of heaven,"32 and indeed come to"know G‑d in all your ways."33

A Fountain of Blessing

The connection between the spiritual heights a Jew reaches on Yom Kippur and his worldly activity encompasses more than our spiritual mission in the world. All the material blessings we receive are connected with our Divine service. For the material influence which a Jew receives his health, children, and prosperity is granted directly by G‑d, who promises:"If you follow My statutes and keep My mitzvos… I will grant you your rain at the appropriate time."34 A Jew receives rain (and all the material influence it symbolizes35) only through observing the Torah and its mitzvos.

There are those who say"I will have peace although I follow my heart's desires,"36 expecting that they will not be denied material prosperity although they follow their heart's desires unchecked. Such people should realize that: a) any prosperity that might come their way does not stem from holiness; and b) it is therefore only temporary. For the life energy of every Jew has a direct connection with holiness.37

This truth is also reflected in the connection between the High Priest's entry into the Holy of Holies and his departure, at which time he would recite a prayer for the Jews' material prosperity. For the inner bond established in the Holy of Holies is the source for the material influence the Jews receive. This bond brings abundant prosperity, drawing down unlimited influence that reflects the limitless nature of its source.

A Man is Not Alone in the Holy of Holies

As mentioned above, one of the conditions that had to be met before the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies was that he be married. The implication is that the ability to"enter in peace and depart in peace" is dependent on Jewish women. Even when a man is in"the Holy of Holies," his wife shares a connection with him.38

Jewish women have the opportunity and the obligation to influence the spiritual state of their husbands and children, enabling them to connect their entry into a state of holiness to their departure from that state.

A woman should not worry if her husband spends an extra hour at prayer or in study; it will not cause them any material loss. Similarly, a mother does not have to be concerned that training her children to study Torah the entire day might stifle their financial future. Indeed, the opposite is true. Women must encourage their husbands and children, explaining that an increase in the observance of the Torah and its mitzvos will amplify their material prosperity. For when"you follow My statutes and keep My mitzvos … I will grant you your rain at the appropriate time."

(Adapted from the maamar and sichos, Yud-Alef Nissan, 5722)