The central event of Parashat Shemini is the death of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu. As a traditional understanding of the story goes, God kills Nadav and Avihu as a punishment for their transgression in offering a “strange fire” as their sacrifice instead of “what was enjoined upon them” (Lev. 10:1).
The question—one that was the source of lively discussion in our Introduction to Judaism class this week—is: for this, they deserve to die? God kills Aaron’s sons just for offering a different type of sacrifice?
But what if Nadav and Avihu were not being punished? Rather, what if they experienced the natural consequence of getting too close to God? While being close to God is the goal of the korbanot (the sacrifices, whose Hebrew root means “close”), Aaron’s sons took it one step further and became completely one with God in their offerings. And by definition, we cannot be completely one with God and also alive in our human form at one time.
If we read carefully what happened to Nadav and Avihu, we see that there is not language of punishment but rather language of happenstance. They are not killed “by” God; they die “before” God (Lev. 10:2). And immediately afterwards, Moses relates the following words to their father Aaron:
הוּא אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּר יְהֹוָה לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ וְעַל־פְּנֵי כׇל־הָעָם אֶכָּבֵד וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן
This is what יהוה meant by saying:
Through those near to Me I show Myself holy,
And gain glory before all the people. (Lev. 10:3)
In the Hebrew, “קְרֹבַי” (“kerovai”) is defined as “the ones who are near me.” Nadav and Avihu are those “karovim”—the ones who are close.
We are in the middle of several parashiyot about korbanot—sacrifices, or acts of closeness.
But the entire purpose of these sacrifices is to become close to God in a very specific way: by bringing God’s presence into this world. The root of “mishkan” is “sh-k-n,” meaning “to dwell.” Through elaborate offerings, the Israelites undertake the Jewish project of trying to bring God’s presence into our physical world and into our daily lives. We don’t become close to God by ascending; we become close to God by bringing God’s presence into the dirty, bloody, and physical world through our actions. This is what we must learn from the book of Vayikra, Leviticus.
Perhaps Nadav and Avihu tried to get close by ascending, by reaching upward and trying to find God in God’s place. We can learn from their story that this is not the way. Instead, our job is to make our mundane actions holy, as we read at the end of our parashah, “וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי” “Be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44).
We bring God’s presence into this world not by grandiose acts of transcendence but through proper relationships, ritual, community, offerings, keeping of traditions, and myriad ways we draw this Presence down— a presence which, we learn from our Torah, abides and dwells.