Nadav and Avihu: The Inside Story
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
Then, a fire came out from before G-d and consumed the Burnt-Offering
and the fat on the altar, while the people watched. They cried out in
praise and fell on their faces. (Vayikra 9:24)
Climax of climaxes. This is what it is all about ... what it all
comes down to, or, rather, UP to. Life is about being inspired and
inspiring. It is about being spiritually, intellectually, and
emotionally stirred up to the point that one wants to shout out
praise of G-d. Whether it comes from receiving a unexpected bonus on
a paycheck, standing atop the highest mountain and beholding a
breath-taking view, or, reaching a sublime quiet moment in the midst
of prayer -- it is all the same: bursts of excitement meant to be
channeled in the direction of G-d.
Praise comes in many different shapes and sizes. It can simply be a
"thank G-d," or, it can be an elaborate set of prose like Dovid
HaMelech composed. It can just be the way a person acts, when the
person acts in a way that reflects the way of G-d, like Pinchas son
of Elazar in the Torah. In fact, very little inspires people more
than seeing others perform sincere acts of self-sacrifice, and, when
those acts are performed for someone else, then, people who see them
think highly of the reason for such self-sacrifice.
Now, of course, G-d does NOT need our praise; He needs NOTHING at
all. He is perfect, and has more than enough self-confidence and
belief in what He does to be above our praise. Just like sacrifices
in general, we do it to rectify ourselves and the world, not G-d.
This is the reason for the following remarkable statement:
The Holy One, Blessed is He, was about to make [King] Chizkiah the
Moshiach and Sennecheriv [who attacked Jerusalem], Gog and Magog,
when the Attribute of Judgment said before The Holy One, Blessed is
He, "Master of the Universe! Dovid, the king of Israel, who recited
many songs and praises, You did not make Moshiach. Chizkiah, for whom
You have performed great miracles, and for which he did NOT recite
song, You want to make Moshiach?" (Sanhedrin 94a)
Of all the things that one might guess could stand in the way of
Moshiach's arrival, praise of G-d for miracles would not be one of
them. And, besides, just because one man forgot to adequately say
"thank you" after a great miracle occurred for him, a whole
generation -- and the rest of history for that matter -- had to
Yes, for two reasons. The first reason is because a leader,
especially a Jewish leader, is representative of the entire nation,
and just as he is inspired by his people, his people are inspired by
him. And that is true of a national leader, a community leader, and
even a family leader.
Secondly, nothing, historically, ever happens in a vacuum. If
Chizkiah missed the marked as far as praising G-d for the miraculous
victory of Sennecheriv, then, there was something lacking from his
entire generation, which, the Talmud says, was praiseworthy in so
many other ways. In fact, they have gone downhill ever since his time.
Still, why is praise of G-d such an important key to redemption, be
it national or personal?
Because, if you think of it, very little reveals our own "hisbatlus"
-- self-cancellation -- than our ability to praise others. Usually,
when we are self-consumed and focussed inwardly, we have difficulty
seeing the praiseworthiness of others, and, feel unable to muster the
energy to praise them. It is hard to praise others on the "outside"
when we live totally on the "inside."
Thus, praising others, and especially G-d, reveals just how much we
are able to get out of ourselves and be objective, the goal of life.
It is then, and only then, that we can become fitting conduits for
the light of G-d, the true goal of life and success of a person.
Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aharon, took their incense pans and put fire
and incense in them, and offered an unauthorized fire before G-d,
which He did not command them to do. A fire went out from before G-d
and burned them up, and they died before G-d. (Vayikra 10:1-2)
The story of Nadav and Avihu is one of the all-time Torah tragedies.
Two rising stars cut down in their prime, at the height of one of
history's greatest celebrations. The fall from glory, for Nadav and
Avihu and the entire Jewish nation was swift and stunning, and we've
The Talmud and Kabbalah cite various different factors that
contributed to the catastrophic moment. There was, of course, their
unauthorized incense-offering as mentioned in the verse. There was,
also, their sin of looking at the Divine Presence on top of Mt. Sinai
all the way back at the end of Parashas Mishpatim, and, as the Talmud
says, their grave sin of teaching law while in the presence of their
As well, it says that when Aharon HaKohen, Nadav and Avihu's father,
assisted in the creation of the golden calf, all of his sons were
supposed to die as a punishment. However, Moshe Rabbeinu prayed on
his behalf and was able to reduce the punishment to only two sons,
which Nadav and Avihu became as a result of their other sins.
But, as the Arizal reveals in Sha'ar HaGilgulim (Chapter 33), the
story of Nadav and Avihu is a big one, one that goes far beyond -- in
both directions in time -- than the few possukim allotted here in
this week's parshah. And, it is another excellent example of how,
without Sod, it is very hard, if not impossible, to assemble a
complete picture of what is really being taught, as we shall now
The Arizal teaches:
"Later on, Nadav and Avihu also came from the good side of Kayin, and
this is the sod of 'the firstborn Nadav and Avihu' (Bamidbar 3:2). On
this the Zohar in Parashas Acharei Mos asks: It should have said
"v'Elazar" ("the firstborn Nadav and Avihu, Elazar"), with a 'vav.'
Thus, it is an allusion, for, Kayin was the firstborn of Adam
HaRishon, the firstborn of history, and he reincarnated into Nadav
and Avihu ..."
So, the story of Nadav and Avihu begins way back in time, at least it
does for their souls. And, even though Kayin was the first murderer
ever, and, as evil and selfish as he seems to have been, still, there
was a "good side" to him, and that went to Nadav and Avihu.
"However, Nadav only had his Ruach from the level of Kayin, which is
the sod of the posuk, 'With Your generous spirit (ruach nedivah)
sustain me' (Tehillim 51:14). His Nefesh came from his elder,
Aminadav father of Elisheva his mother, and thus, he took the last
three letters (nun-dalet-bais): Nadav. However, with respect to
Avihu, both his Nefesh and Ruach were from Kayin, and that is why he
is called 'Avihu' ('he is my father'), to indicate that all of his
levels were from Kayin, who received the Nefesh from Adam himself,
the 'father of the entire world.' This is the meaning of 'Avihu'- he
is from Adam, the 'father of the entire world'."
Thus, we see a distinction between the two brothers, though,
normally, they are seen as two parts of one whole.
"This is the sod of, 'We are unclean for the soul of man (nefesh
adam)' (Bamidbar 9:7), which were Nadav and Avihu, the Nefesh of Adam
HaRishon himself. However, since Nadav did not have the Nefesh of
Adam, it does not say 'Nefashos Adam' in the plural, for, the main
Nefesh of Adam was only in Avihu."
The distinction of Avihu went even further:
"Avihu also took from Nachson, the brother of his mother, because he
was also from the root of Kayin, called 'Nefesh' ... Since they were
on the level of Nefesh called 'Asiyah,' the zuhama of the snake
attached itself to them, and they sinned in the incident of the
unauthorized Incense-Offering (Vayikra 10:1). As a result, they were
punished and they died."
In other words, tracing back the root of the souls of Nadav and
Avihu, we find that they come from the lowest world, the world
closest to the "K'lipos," the Negative Forces in creation. Therefore,
there was an inherent spiritual vulnerability in Nadav and Avihu, one
that was triggered by the event of their day, but, which was rooted
far back in time.
The sin, having been committed and death having occurred, tikun
"Eliyahu HaNavi is Pinchas, which is the Nefesh "Zehira Ila'a" of
Adam. Therefore, Nadav and Avihu came into him b'ibur in the incident
with Zimri, since they were also the level of the Nefesh of Adam from
the side of the Nefesh of Asiyah, as we mentioned earlier."
As we have mentioned in the past, there are two types of
reincarnations. The typical reincarnation is when a soul is born into
a new body after having lived in a previous life(s). This happens
only at birth, and that soul becomes the main soul for that body for
its entire lifetime.
The second type of "reincarnation" is more subtle, and happens during
a person's life time. In other words, it is possible to spiritually
"inherit" an additional soul while one is perfectly alive and even
quite conscious. This is usually the soul of a righteous person to
help a well-meaning individual accomplish more than he might normally
be capable of achieving, or, the soul of an evil person to "help" an
evil person "evil" himself out of existence.
This type of reincarnation is called "ibur" (impregnation) because
the additional soul spiritually "impregnates" the person,
so-to-speak, providing him with an extra spiritual lift. As a result,
it never becomes the main soul of the person, and, it can leave the
person just as fast as it came. Or, it, or even they (there can be up
to THREE such additions) can stay around for a while, as in the case
of Pinchas and the ibur of Nadav and Avihu.
We'll continue with the odyssey of the souls of Nadav and Avihu at
Seudos Shlishis. (Peeking now is cheating, but understandable.)
And all your brothers the entire House of Israel shall cry over the
burning. (Vayikra 10:6)
Nadav and Avihu, Part Two.
The Arizal continues:
"Now, had the Jewish people not sinned with the (golden) calf, then,
the zuhama would have been completely removed from them. And, had
that been the case, then, even though Nadav and Avihu sinned with the
incense, they could have simply died a normal death. However, since
Israel did commit the sin with the calf, they caused the zuhama to
once again adhere to the Nefesh of Adam. As a result, Nadav and Avihu
had to die through burning. This is the reason for, 'And all your
brothers the entire House of Israel shall cry over the burning'
(Vayikra 10:6): their sin of the calf caused the burning of the
Nefesh of Adam HaRishon, the 'father of the entire world.' And, this
is the reason why Nadav and Avihu were considered 'equal' to the
entire Jewish people, like Moshe and Aharon, for, they had possessed
the Nefesh of Adam HaRishon itself."
Thus, this is the explanation of the famous midrash that says Moshe
considered Nadav and Avihu to be greater than even he and Aharon
HaKohen (Vayikra Rabbah 12:2), and which Rashi quotes (10:3). This
midrash, in spite of the explanations, has always been hard to
understand, given the sins that Nadav and Avihu committed, and the
punishment they warranted.
However, as the Arizal explains, it has to do with the source of
their souls; that is the source of their greatness. You see, Moshe's
vision, as we saw in Egypt when he killed the Egyptian, went beyond
the immediate moment, but, incorporated the past and the future. The
incident in this week's parshah revealed to him all kinds of deep
secrets about world tikun, and the role his nephews played in it.
Perhaps this is why Aharon was able to remain "quiet" after the
There are more hints to the Pinchas-Nadav and Avihu connection:
"Regarding the ibur into Pinchas, it is written, 'Remember, please
(nun-aleph), which innocent (nun-kuf-yud) person ever perished' (Iyov
4:7), as the Zohar says (Pinchas 217a). For, the first letters of
Nadav and Avihu are 'nun-aleph,' and they are from the root of Kayin,
whose letters spell 'nun-kuf-yud.' In other words, they never
perished, but went into Pinchas, who was also from Kayin. However, as
we explained earlier, when Pinchas sinned with the incident of the
daughter of Yiftach, the ibur of Nadav and Avihu was removed from
him, and it went to Shmuel HaNavi."
Thus, Pinchas maintained his "hold" on the additional souls of Nadav
and Avihu for many years, until the incident of Yiftach (Shoftim
11:34). Yiftach unwittingly had made a vow that disallowed his
daughter to marry, in order to praise G-d for his miraculous victory.
His vow backfired, because he had never intended to include his
daughter in that which he would sanctify to Heaven.
Nevertheless, there had been a solution to the predicament:
anullment. According to Chazal, had Yiftach gone to Pinchas, or,
Pinchas to Yiftach, the vow could have been anulled. Yet, neither
budged, and, Yiftach's daughter fell through the cracks and remained
single the rest of her life, and suffered as a result.
Thus, both leaders were punished. Yiftach's limbs fell off slowly,
and Pinchas lost the ibur of Nadav and Avihu. This greatly affected
his spiritual stature, for, it seems, wherever the souls of Nadav and
Avihu went, there was great spiritual benefit:
"... This is also the sod of 'Moshe and Aharon were among His
priests, and Shmuel among those who invoke His Name' (Tehillim 99:6),
for, Shmuel was equal to Moshe and Aharon (Brochos 31b). This is
because Nadav and Avihu were in him, and they were equal to Moshe and
Aharon, as they say on the posuk, 'It shall be sanctified by My
Glory' (Shemos 29:43) ... And, just as Elisha took the three letters
'aleph-lamed-yud' from Elihu, as we said in the previous discussion,
so, too, did Shmuel take the two letters 'aleph-lamed' from Eliyahu,
to allude to the fact that he took Nadav and Avihu, who, originally,
were in Eliyahu."
This is by far not the end of the story of the souls of Nadav and
Avihu. We didn't even mention how their souls were rectified at Mt.
Carmel when the nation fell on their faces and said, "Hashem is
Elokim," after the miracle of Eliyahu. They did this when the Divine
Presence came down and miraculously lapped up the water and burned
the drenched wood and sacrifice, to avoid looking at It, the opposite
of what Nadav and Avihu did on Mt. Sinai.
But, at least we have seen how, through the prism of Sod, difficult
questions can be answered and two seemingly unimportant characters on
the stage of history have far more prominence than Pshat is willing
A Maskil by Assaf, Give ear, my nation, to my Torah; Bend your ear to
the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth with a parable, I will
utter riddles from ancient times ... (Tehillim 78:1)
The Talmud says that any psalm that begins with the word "Maskil" --
which comes from the word that means enlightenment -- was made public
and explained to the entire people by a skilled interpreter and
orator (Pesachim 117a). This, if course, meant the message was
seminal to the survival of the Jewish people and Torah tradition.
This psalm is both long and short. It is long in as much as it has 72
possukim, many more than most psalms in Tehillim. However, given that
it is a veritable overview of Jewish history -- spanning more than
four hundred years from the slavery in Egypt to the reign of King
David -- it is quite short.
What is the point of such an overview? The point is not so much a
historical overview, but, a Hashgochah Pratis -- Divine Providence --
overview. It is to show how all events, and far and varied as they
may have been, were in order to lead to the rulership of Dovid
He despised the tent of Yoseph the tribe of Ephraim He did not
choose; but chose the tribe of Yehudah, Har Tzion which He loves.
The same thing, of course, applies to his descendant, Moshiach ben
Dovid. If all events from the slavery in Egypt until the rulership of
Dovid HaMelech were in order to establish his kingdom, how much more
so is this true of the eventual king of the Jewish people, Moshiach
ben Dovid. Even the minutest detail of the seemingly most
insignificant life in all of history was to this end.
In fact, "they" say that once prophecy returns in the Days of
Moshiach, we will be able to sense what the roles that even blades of
grass played in the building of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.
"Hester Panim," the "Hiding of G-d's Face, means that most aspects of
creation APPEAR to live in their own worlds, oblivious to the worlds
of others, randomly. "Gilui Panim," the "Revealing of G-d's Face,"
means that it becomes apparent how everything was and is intimately
inter-connected, growing in unison according to Divine Plan.
We are now well into the period of the "Omer," which we count each
night until the holiday of Shavuos and the time of Torah reception.
Torah is, by definition, a revelation of G-d. It is strictly
prophecy, dictated by G-d to Moshe Rabbeinu, who had no permission at
all to edit even a letter.
One would think, and rightly so, that it should be impossible to look
at Torah and NOT see the work of G-d. Yet, we see that not only can
people learn Torah and deny its Divine origin, but, that they can
even greatly disgrace it. What people have done to Torah (although
they have not necessarily gotten away with it), is beyond one's worst
Yet, others look at Torah, and not only see the word of G-d, but, the
universes of thought hidden within each letter of Torah. And, the
respect they show for Torah is beyond one's idea of what
self-sacrifice for a holy cause might normally entail.
What's the difference between the two groups and their radically
Spiritual refinement, which is not to be confused with intellectual
greatness. One can be intellectually bright, yet, devoid of
spirituality. One can be quite spiritual, yet, not have the highest
I.Q. To have both qualities is to have it all, and, often, to become
a leader of the Torah world.
Counting the Omer is about spiritual refinement. Prior to Pesach, we
annulled all of our chometz, and during Pesach we ate only matzah,
straight flour and water. Simplicity, sublime simplicity, like that
of the World-to-Come, says the Maharal. A simplicity that means all
the physical blinders are removed from our eyes so that we can see
behind the scenes, and, the hand of G-d.
In fact, each of the ten plagues was really just the removal of
another spiritual veil, unlike the ten statements of creation, which
successively added another veil. Creation was made to hide the hand
of G-d; the plagues occurred to reveal It. G-d didn't make a plague,
He simply removed a veil, and the plague was the net result of doing
That's OUR job. Our "melachah" is to reveal the hand of G-d in
creation, by revealing it first within ourselves. Like the souls of
Nadav and Avihu, there is a lot of history to all of us, and, by
getting in touch with it, either in a general or particular way, we
refine ourselves and place ourselves in a better position to connect
up with the rest of creation and the purpose of life.