Our sages debate the nature of the sin that was so grave that Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, died after they offered alien fire before God. The text says of their fate Vatetze esh mi lifnei Adonai va-tochal otam vayamutu - “And fire came forth from God and consumed them, and thus they died.” (Leviticus 10:2)
Some commentators conclude that Nadav and Avihu were guilty of excessive drinking, arrogance and disrespect of their High Priest father when they offered a sacrifice in the holy precinct in his place, based on juxtaposition of events and midrashic thinking.
Others, however, assert that Nadav’s and Avihu’s sin wasn’t a sin at all. Their death, they say, came as a consequence of their excessive passion for God (Hitlahavut) and of their yearning for unification with the Holy One and annulment of their individual selves into the greater Divine Self (Yihud – Bitul Hayeish).
These commentators based their view on their reading of Leviticus 16:1 describing the scene after the fact; Vayidaber Adonai el Moshe acharei mot sh’nei b’nei Aharon b’karvatam lifnei Adonai vayamutu (“The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of YHVH.”)
Noting the difference between the verbal Hif’il causative form b’hakrivam (“when they brought close their offering”) as opposed to the Pa’al activist form b’karvatam (“when they came too close”) Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (Prague - 17th century) emphasized that it was not that they brought an unauthorized sacrifice that sealed their fate, but rather, that they themselves entered into the holy inner precinct where God’s Presence “dwelt” and no Israelite except the High Priest Aaron was permitted to step foot.
Corroborating this view, Rabbi Abraham Saba, who fled Cordoba during the years of the Spanish Inquisition, and who in that tragic period in Jewish history suffered the loss of two of his own sons, said that Nadav and Avihu’s plight was similar to that of Rabbi Ben Azzai, one of the four Talmudic sages who entered into the garden of mystical speculation (Talmud, Hagigah 14b). In that famous legend it’s written that “Ben Azzai looked and died” because in coming too close to God’s fiery Presence, he was spiritually unprepared and perished.
Rabbi Horowitz is quick to say, however, that the souls of Nadav and Avihu (and by extension Ben Azzai) were not destroyed nor denied a place in Eternity; only that their souls and their bodies separated, as occurs at death.
For me, I prefer the view that Nadav’s and Avihu’s deaths were not caused by their sin, but by their soul’s yearning to be close to God. Their fatal flaw was in their naivete about the consequences. The inner sanctum is a place of great danger to any mortal being, which is why God warned Moses Lo tuchal lirot et panai ki lo yirani ha-adam va-chai - “You cannot see My face, for the human being may not see Me and live.” (Exodus 33:20)
Back to Aaron. His response following his sons’ deaths was as any parent who suffers the loss of a child. Vayidom Aharon - “And Aaron was silent.” (Leviticus 10:1-3). The sense of the Hebrew connotes an especially devastating silence. Vayidom is more than mere quiet and passive speechlessness, so says Professor Andre Neher (France, 20th century), who described Aaron’s silence as total “petrification.”
Moses, however, did not understand. He said to Aaron, allegedly quoting God, that “through those near to Me I show Myself holy.” We have to ask, what kind of a message of consolation is this to a man who just lost his children?
For the first time Aaron rejects Moses’ explanation. Dr. Neher explained this way: “We can accept God’s silence, but not that other people should speak in God’s place.” Not even Moses. In other words, avoid theological justifications for God when tragedy strikes.
For consolation Aaron turned away from his brother and directly to God because Moses didn’t understand Aaron’s suffering.
Rashi says that soon thereafter Moses “admitted his mistake and [to his credit] was not ashamed to say, ‘I didn’t know.’” The midrash elaborated emphasizing Moses’ humility and contrition, saying that “Moses issued a proclamation throughout the camp and said: I misinterpreted the law and my brother Aaron came to put it right.”
Despite Moses’ exalted position in Judaism, tradition ascribes to Aaron, the man who knew grief, to be the one who would set the laws of mourning for generations to come.
Among the most important mitzvot listed in the Talmud is Mitzvah b’shtika – The mitzvah of mourning and visiting mourners is silence mirroring the response of Aaron himself.