The Torah portion of Shmini includes, among instructions to the kohanim (priests) for the inauguration of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) during the sojourn of the Children of Israel in the desert, a reference to the death of Aaron’s son Nadav and Avihu.
In his Michtav MiEliyahu vol. II, pp. 244-250, the noted mashgiach of Yeshivat Ponovezh R. Eliyahu Dessler (1892-1953) analyzes the matter of Nadav and Avihu’s death.
Nadav and Avihu’s greatness cannot be doubted. Nadav and Avihu were behind only Moses and Aaron upon going up towards G-d at Mount Sinai when the Ten Commandments were presented to the Children of Israel. Only Moses and Aaron preceded Nadav and Avihu whereas all seventy elders of Israel along with the rest of the nation of Israel were behind them (Sh’mot 24:9). And, when G-d struck down Nadav and Avihu with fire, at the dedication of the Mishkan, Moses comforted his brother Aaron (Babylonian Talmud, Zevachim 115b) by saying, “I knew the House would be sanctified by those close to G-d and I was under the impression that it would be either you or me; now I see that they were greater than both of us.”
Nadav and Avihu were great individuals. Yet we are told (Vayikra 10:1) that they sinned, having “brought before G-d an alien fire that He had not commanded them. Consequently, “A fire came forth from before G-d and consumed them, and they died before G-d” (Vayikra 10:2).
R. Dessler points out that our Sages attribute a number of sins to Nadav and Avihu: (1) They decided a law in their teacher’s presence. 2) They entered the Kodshe Ha’Kodoshim (Holy of Holies in the Mishkan) without permission. (3) They brought an offering which they were not instructed to bring. (4) They acted independently, not even seeking each other’s advice. (5) They entered the Mishkan after drinking wine. (6) They entered the Mishkan without wearing the proper garments. (7) They never married. (8) They looked forward to Moses’ and Aaron’s passing, when they would be able to take over the leadership of the nation of Israel . (9) They gazed at the glory of G-d’s Shekinah at Mount Sinai . (10) They brought an “alien fire,” as mentioned in the Torah, cited above.
R. Dessler opines that the common thread among all of the above sins attributed to Nadav and Avihu is the pitfall to which great people are prone – over-awareness of one’s greatness and concomitant reduction in one’s level of humility. In most of the examples above, the common denominator is rather apparent. In some, where the connection is not as obvious, R. Dessler goes on to amplify. They did not marry because they could not see any women as suitable mates for them – sons of the kohen gadol (High Priest), nephews of the nation’s leader, whose mother’s brother was the prince of a tribe. They entered without proper garments. Although taking on functions of the kohen gadol, which would have warranted their wearing the kohen gadol’s garments, which included theme’il surrounded by golden bells on its lower hem, they neglected to do so. The bells were attached “so that its sound shall be heard when he goes into the holy place and when he comes out, and he shall not die” (Sh’mot 28:33-34). The kohen gadol was in danger of death were he to enter the holy place without a proper feeling of awe and trembling, prompted by the bells’ ringing. Nadav and Avihu apparently lack this feeling of awe and trembling, having not seen to it to wear the appropriate garments. Their gazing at the glory of G-d’s Shekinah can be contrasted to what is said concerning Moses, the nation’s leader yet the humblest of men (Bamidbar 12:3): “He hid his face for he was afraid to look” (Sh’mot 3:6).
Indeed, Nadav and Avihu were great people, but greatness does not preclude humility. In fact, as is evident from Moses and others, greatness demands humility. To truly maintain one’s greatness, one must keep proper perspective to avoid over-stepping one’s bounds. True greatness involves understanding one’s limitations. We are all bound by G-d’s Will, no matter how great we are. While understanding this, we can hope for G-d’s Providence in assisting us to grow in our abilities. Without understanding this, we cannot hope for His assistance. And without G-d’s assistance, the greatest may fall. Let us not let it happen to us.