In this week’s Torah portion we read about Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, who were Kohanim. We learn that they offer a “strange fire” to Hashem in the Mishkan (the tabernacle) and as a result they perish.
Imagine that for a second; Aaron’s sons perished for providing a slightly altered offering to Hashem. Nowadays people would gawk at such a thing. One would wonder, how could two people who sincerely wanted to serve Hashem be punished with death?
In the words of Rabbi Kahane, may his memory be a blessing, Judaism is not a free for all. Hashem, the Creator of the universe, decided how He wants to be served. There are many fine details, details that are of utmost importance. We cannot think for a second that we know how to serve Hashem better than He told us to, or that the details that He gives us don’t matter. He is the Creator of all: you, me, every blade of grass, the entire universe, and all the laws! Once we think we know better, not only are we mistaken, but our intentions become misguided. We fall into a trap of ego and narcissism; we end up serving ourselves and our emotions, not Hashem, G-D forbid.
Let us return to Nadav and Avihu. As well intentioned as they may have been, their offering was not what Hashem wanted. Then the question arises: why were they punished with death? Think of it this way, when an engineer builds a rocket ship, can he have any measurements added or subtracted from the rocket ship? No!!! The rocket ship will blow up, G-D forbid. Nadav and Abihu, who were Kohanim, were responsible for their service in the Mishkan, the place where Hashem’s presence rested, the place where our national relationship with Hashem manifested itself. Did Nadav and Avihu want to set an example in which the nation of Israel is shown that man knows better than Hashem, and of all places, in the Mishkan? Thus, they perished.
In our lives, we may be filled with emotions and desires, things that must be channeled towards holiness; but in order for that to happen, these intangible emotions and desires need a vessel: Torah and Mitzvot.
Actions express our inner world, and they also shape our inner world. The “purity” of our inner world is not enough. Imagine a husband and wife sitting, and all of a sudden, the wife says, “can you please bring me a cup of water”. The husband then says “I’m not really into the physical actions. I’m a spiritual kind of guy. I think saying ‘I love you’ should suffice to show you my true feeling and intentions”. How well is that going to go? Not well at all. Although that husband may indeed have within himself a lot of love for his wife, if he does not take practical actions, then the love will never be expressed, it will never come to fruition. The husband needs to get his behind up and go get the cup of water. The action of getting the cup of water is a vessel for the husband to express his love for his wife. Let’s entertain the following scenario: the husband had a hard day at work, and when asked to get the cup of water, he doesn’t feel like getting up. However, he gets his act together. By getting up, pouring water, giving it to his wife, and seeing that she is satisfied, he invests himself in her. By investing himself in his wife, he is creating a bond between himself and his wife. In turn, this bond makes him more ready and enthusiastic to do more for his wife; something that many outside observers would call love.
The same is with our relationship with Hashem. We may have lots of love for Hashem, and other times we may not feel so inspired. Regardless, Hashem is merciful and provides us His Torah, which guides us in every aspect of life no matter how we feel. In turn, by following His holy Torah, we strengthen our bond with Hashem; we invest in our relationship with Him. For sure, by following His will, it will lead us to love Him. But first, we must follow His will. That is the important lesson that Nadav and Avihu forgot. They were spiritual engineers if you will. They were sending rocket ships up to Hashem, rocket ships that could reach great heights and elevate the nation. But they miscalculated their measurements for the rocket ship and thus they perished. The Mitzvot are like a rocket ship, they are a vessel that must be sent up to Hashem. We must put lots of love, heart, joy, and soul into these vessels, but we must be scrupulous when it comes to the vessel itself. For without the vessel, without the Mitzvot, try as we may, we can never serve Hashem the way He wants us to.