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Parashat Shemini: Nadab and Abihu

The Torah in Parashat Shemini tells of the terrible tragedy that struck on the day of the Mishkan’s inauguration. On the very first day when Aharon and his sons served as Kohanim, the two older sons – Nadab and Abihu – were killed after bringing an incense offering in the Mishkan.

Our Sages mention many different reasons why Nadav and Abihu – who were great Sadikim – were deserving of such a harsh punishment. These include offering a Ketoret (incense) offering that was not required, and entering the Mishkan after drinking wine. Still, it is difficult to understand why they were punished so harshly. For one thing, many of the laws governing the Mishkan and the Kohanim had not yet been issued, and thus Nadab and Abihu should have seemingly been excused for their failure to observe these restrictions. Furthermore, the day of the Mishkan’s inauguration was a unique occasion when many of the standard procedures did not apply. Was it unreasonable for Nadab and Abihu to assume – albeit mistakenly – that they were allowed to bring Ketoret, and to enter the Mishkan after drinking, on this special day?

Different explanations have been offered for why God dealt so harshly with Nadab and Abihu. One insightful answer was suggested by the Maggid of Duvna (Rabbi Yaakov Krantz, 1741-1804), who drew an analogy to a king who ordered his servants to build for him a special city that would be the crown jewel of the kingdom. When the city was built, he instructed his servants to offer incentives to bring the greatest and most accomplished professionals to populate the city. The king was particularly adamant that the very best physician in the kingdom should be brought to the city, so the residents would know that their health is in the very best hands.

The royal servants located the most skilled and renowned physician, and brought him to live in the new city. His arrival was marked by great fanfare, and a special royal reception was held in his honor.

Even before the reception ended, the physician was called to duty. People rushed in and informed the doctor that a certain man had taken gravely ill. The doctor quickly went to the patient, and after looking him over for a few moments, he assured everybody that he could cure him.

The physician was left to treat the patient, and after a short while he emerged from the room. Visibly distraught, the doctor informed the crowd outside the room that the patient had died. Despite his best efforts, he was not able to save the man.

Needless to say, the townspeople were stunned. After all the fanfare, all the pomp and circumstance surrounding the doctor’s arrival, he failed in his very first try. He said the man’s condition was curable, but ultimately was unable to do the job. The people later approached the doctor and asked him to explain what had happened.

"The truth is," the physician said, "I knew full well from the moment I looked at the man that he had no chance of surviving. He suffered from an illness that has no cure. Nevertheless, I decided to give an optimistic prognosis, in order to send a message to everyone in the city. I saw how I was greeted with such honor, and I realized what the people’s expectations were. Knowing that the man touted as the world’s greatest physician would be living among them, the people were likely to disregard their health. They would figure that no matter what happens to them, there is a doctor here who could cure them. I wanted to make it clear from the outset that my skills are limited. You must all continue to take care of yourselves. I am not a miracle-worker, and I do not have a remedy for every ailment. This is the message I wanted to convey already on the first day."

The Maggid explained that this is the same reason why God reacted so harshly to Nadab and Abihu’s sin. The construction of the Mishkan offered Beneh Yisrael the opportunity to achieve atonement through the offering of sacrifices. People may have misunderstood this to mean that they no longer needed to be vigilant in their observance of God’s laws. After all, they may have thought, sins can be "magically" erased by bringing a sacrifice in the Mishkan. God was concerned that the people would see the Mishkan as a kind of automatic antidote to sin, and thus neglect the Misvot. Like the townspeople in the Maggid’s parable, they would rely too heavily on the rituals of the Mishkan, and thus would see no need to rely on their own behavior.

And so on the very first day of the Mishkan’s operation, God killed two Sadikim for a minor offense. He wanted the people to see that these two exceptionally righteous men were punished gravely for a relatively minor infraction, and were not saved by the special offering they brought in the Mishkan. The people would then come to realize that the Mishkan is not a magical cure, and that there is no magical cure for our spiritual ills. Although God has mercifully granted us ways to earn atonement, ultimately, we bear accountability for our actions. As significant and powerful as the Mishkan and it sacrifices were, it did not excuse the people from their responsibility to conduct themselves properly and strictly adhere to the Torah’s commands. They were given a "doctor," an exceptional means of achieving atonement, but this did not absolve them of their responsibility to carefully observe each and every Misva, down to the last detail.

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