“This is it that the L-RD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.”
– Leviticus 10:3, JPS 1917 Tanach
According to chazal, Nadav and Avihu are portrayed as righteous individuals who overstepped the boundaries in place for them as kohanim; as they tried to draw closer to H’Shem, in an unauthorized manner, they were consumed by “fire from before H’Shem” (Leviticus 10:2, JPS). Aaron’s two sons died, only for the sake of sanctifying H’Shem’s name (Zevachim 115b). Within the same Talmudic passage, another view expresses their deaths in a more nuanced way, alluding to their transgression, by making the point that they had previously been cautioned against drawing too close to H’Shem.
Rashi comments that through the execution of judgment upon righteous individuals, yiras H’Shem (fear of G-d) is brought upon the people. This is an important principle; with respect to Nadav and Avihu, their deaths caused the people to witness how precarious serving G-d may be, if a righteous person is not careful in respect to his avodah. The deaths of Nadav and Avihu show, by way of an example with a deadly consequence, that H’Shem needs to be approached with great reverence, awe, and respect.
A harsher condemnation of Nadav and Avihu may be rendered by a perspective that is even more critical of their transgression. They brought “alien fire” from a source other than the fire on the mizbeach. The fire on the mizbeach had its origin from Shomayim (Leviticus 9:24); according to Sifre, fire descended in the shape of a pillar between heaven and earth. Yet, Nadav and Avihu flouted the implicit directive, to draw fire from the outer mizbeach for all of the offerings (the original fire from H’Shem).
What could have motivated Nadav and Avihu to take alien fire for their incense offering, instead of the fire that H’Shem had provided? One view critiques them as desiring to usurp the authority of Moshe and Aaron. Furthermore, because the authority of Moshe and Aaron was given to them from H’Shem, then flouting that authority would be akin to disregarding the authority of H’Shem. Therefore, it could be inferred that their taking of alien fire constitutes a betrayal of their motives to disregard the sovereignty of H’Shem.
Consider that towards the end of the first Temple period, the people were admonished, “they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13, JPS). The people had sought out other gods – alien gods – to worship, according to their own intentions; they had forsaken H’Shem.
Today, when we approach H’Shem in prayer, our avodah (service), equal to prayer of the heart, we should approach H’Shem perform our service in reverence. Serving H’Shem, through the observance of the mitzvot, as well as through prayer, may also require a rigorous examination of conscience, for the sake of bringing to light ulterior motives, faults, and character defects.
“Who shall ascend into the mountain of H’Shem? And who shall stand in His holy place? He that hath clean hands and a pure heart [lev tahor]; who hath not taken My name in vain, and hath not sworn deceitfully.” – Psalm 24:4, JPS 1917 Tanach