by Rabbi Yaakov Menken
"And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon, each took his censer, and put
fire in them, and put incense on each, and brought before G-d a strange
fire, which He had not commanded them. And a fire went out from before G-d
and consumed them, and they died before G-d." [Lev. 10:1-2]
When we read this Torah portion, it is natural to be perplexed. What did
these sons of Aharon do that was so wrong? Why did they deserve to die?
Concerning their actions there is considerable debate. Some commentaries
say that they took fire from the altar, while others say that they made
their own. Did they proceed to the inner altar, or only the outer? Did
this tragedy begin before fire descended upon the altar (9:24), or after?
Concerning the source of their error, however, there seem to be only two
primary opinions. One is that they went in having drunk wine, if not
intoxicated. The evidence for this view is that the remaining Cohanim,
Aharon and his other sons, were warned immediately thereafter not to enter
the Tabernacle after drinking intoxicating beverages (10:9).
The second opinion, however, speaks of a more subtle flaw in the brothers'
behavior. The Medrash tells us that they did not ask Moshe or Aharon what
to do or whether to offer this incense. They decided to do this on their
own -- and for this alone, says Rebbe Eliezer, their punishment was
The Medrash elaborates: Nadav and Avihu would walk behind Moshe and
Aharon, wondering when the two leaders would die and it would become their
turn to lead the Jewish people. They were anxious to take the reins, and
they "jumped the gun," as it were, trying something new without consulting
the proper authorities.
One thing is clear: no one argues that Nadav and Avihu had ill intent.
They did not enter in order to rebel against the authority of Moshe and
Aharon, or to change the way incense was brought. All of the Medrashim and
commentaries say that they were very high-minded, spiritual men, and the
death penalty was warranted only in accordance with their immense
What, then, do we learn from their story? At a very straightforward level,
we see that it is possible to be well-motivated, but to go in the wrong
direction. Often the road to success lies straight ahead, following a more
When it comes to business, we understand that some ventures are doomed
from the start. No one is going to make a living by opening a restaurant
featuring dishes of possum and lizard. The collective public's appetite is
simply not that adventurous. A restaurant can offer exotic dishes, but the
owner cannot delude himself into imagining that they will be the core of
With regards to Judaism, a similar level of analysis is warranted.
Just a few years ago, a well-known foundation gave $75,000 to a Jewish
dance troupe under the guise of "Jewish continuity programming." Now I am
hardly opposed to Jewish cultural programs. But I have yet to see the
study which demonstrates that large numbers of people can develop a
lifelong attachment to the Jewish people by dancing horas.
More recently, Moment magazine ran an editorial from a prominent designer
of Jewish Internet sites. After years of study and site construction, he
concluded that "most Jewish organizational endeavors in the high-tech field
continue to be wired for failure."
What, then, is successful? "It's usually about learning. The best uses of
technology... will be combinations of distance online learning and
training, creating massive and easily accessible databases of Jewish
Welcome home. Jewish continuity is about Jewish learning. Only Jewish
education has a track record of success. Investments in other areas are
valid and valuable only on the periphery -- as first-step outreach and
engagement efforts. They need to feed into Jewish learning, or little will
come of it.
People may come to taste venison, but they'll only become regular
customers if you have the beef!
Rabbi Yaakov Menken