What’s the rush?
דְּבַשׁ מָצָאתָ אֱכֹל דַּיֶּךָּ פֶּן תִּשְׂבָּעֶנּוּ וַהֲקֵאתוֹ.
If you find honey, eat just enough; lest you get full and vomit it.
– Mishlei 25:16
(In the days of the geonim and earlier rishonim it was customary to start a derashah with a verse from Mishlei and then use its explanation to conclude with an explanation of something from the parashah. I’m happy to have once found a way to work within that structure.)
Mishlei is a collection of metaphors, as the name of the book itself is “The Parables of [Shelomo ben David, king of Israel.]” (1:1) In this vein, the Vilna Gaon explains our opening verse based on the notion that “devash” here is meant as an acronym of “de’iah, binah, seikhel — theoretical knowledge, reason, applying the knowledge”, to use the translations he gives in the introduction to the work.
Sidenote: This is the same triad found in Nusach Ashkenaz’s version of birkhas Da’as (the fourth berakhah of the Amidah, “Atah chonein…”) but with a different conjugation: “dei’ah, binah, haskeil.” Perhaps because asking Hashem for help turning what we know into practice would be asking for Him to violate free will, so we instead ask to provide us with more skill at doing so, rather than help in the actual doing.
But intellect and spirituality are good things, so what would it mean to say “if you gain knowledge and the wherewithall to use it, apply just enough; lest you get full and vomit it”?
In Aesop’s “The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs”, he writes (tr. Harvard Classics 1909 ed.):
ONE day a countryman going to the nest of his Goose found there an egg all yellow and glittering. When he took it up it was as heavy as lead and he was going to throw it away, because he thought a trick had been played upon him. But he took it home on second thoughts, and soon found to his delight that it was an egg of pure gold. Every morning the same thing occurred, and he soon became rich by selling his eggs. As he grew rich he grew greedy; and thinking to get at once all the gold the Goose could give, he killed it and opened it only to find, —nothing.
“GREED OFT O’ERREACHES ITSELF.”
In “real life” we have to balance our production with our capacity to produce. If we are overly short-sighted in our pursuit of immediate gains and accomplishments, we can kill the goose, and end up accomplishing less in our lives overall.
In the context of religious worship, this is the need to both perform mitzvos, and to develop within our selves the abilities necessary to do future mitzvos (including rest as needed), and the middos to make the right choices when opportunities arrive. As R’ Shimon writes (tr. mine):
וכמובן בכל הקדשות שהוא התיחדות למטרה נכבדה, והנה כשהאדם מישר הליכותיו ושואף שתמיד יהיו דרכי חייו מוקדשים להכלל, אז כל מה שעושה גם לעצמו להבראת גופו ונפשו הוא מתיחס גם כן אל מצות קדושה, שעל ידי זה יטיב גם לרבים, שבטובתו לעצמו הוא מטיב עם הרבים הצריכים לו.
And as understood, all holiness is being set apart for an honorable purpose – which is that a person straightens his path and strives constantly to make his lifestyle dedicated to the community. Then, anything he does even for himself, for the health of his body and soul he also associates to the mitzvah of being holy, for through this he can also do good for the masses. Through the good he does for himself he can do good for the many who rely on him.
And similarly the Gra says that Shelomo haMelekh is warning us not to try to exceed our grasp. That by trying for more da’as, binah and haskeil then one is ready for, one can end up burning out. (Sorry for what will be in retrospect a poor turn of phrase; check back when you get to the end of this post.)
Many of us have encountered the baal teshuvah who tries to take on too much too soon, and after a short while gives up on the whole enterprise. Or have ourselves set overly high expectations during the High Holidays, and all the resolutions unravel in the days (or day) after Yom Kippur — leaving us with no change.
Now to turn to the parashah… When one looks at Chazal and rishonim explaining the magnitude of Nadav and Avihu’s sin, to find why it was so grievous as to warrant their death, one finds numerous different suggestions. As I wrote last 10 Av in the post “No Answers“:
Eight different answers…, each made with the claim that it’s the sole reason for the destruction of Jerusalem.
Rabbi Jack Love, a rebbe-chaveir, would point to this very variety of answers, or of identification of the specific sin committed by Nadav and Avihu to warrant their death, or what Moshe did wrong when he struck the rock. The gemara is making a statement. This kind of question has no final answer. The gemara grapples with the problem, but doesn’t claim to have a final answer.
So then why ask the question, if we know it’s unanswerable?
Knowing there is no conclusive answer to finding the cause, and they would never even succeed to find a cause, they still needed to struggle with the question of causes in order to find motivations to change. And by framing the problem in terms of that sin, they inspire their students to repair it.
In that spirit, I would like to take a lesson by combining some of the statements Rashi quotes from the medrash as well as an idea from the Seforno on the sin of Nadav and Avihu.
Let’s assume that the opinion that says that it was Nadav and Avihu about whom Hashem said “biqrovai aqadeish — through those close to Me I will be stanctified” (Vayiqra 10:3) is consistent with the one that says that at Har Sinai Nadav said to Avihu, “When these elders [Moshe and Aharon] die, you and I will lead the generation.” It would mean that they had the purest motives in wanting to lead. Not out of a desire for personal importance, but out of an awareness that they are indeed close to Him and thus — in their opinion — make good leaders.
But they were impatient. And when bringing the qetores they decided how it should be done on their own rather than asking Moshe Rabbeinu. Without explicit permission (which is the point of today’s semichah), it is prohibited for a student to rule on a halachic matter when in the same region — even when the student reaches the same answer.
Another way in which they jumped the gun is the opinion that the qetores was in error because it was the kohein gadol‘s job. Not only did they presume on Moshe Rabbeinu’s role before their apprenticeship under him was complete, they did the same with Aharon’s.
An improper qetores caused the death of many kohanim gedolim during the second Beis haMiqdash. The Yerushalmi (Yuma 1:5, vilna daf 7b) contrasts those who punished with death by omitting one of the ingredients of the qetores with those who die by entering the holy of holies without adding a smoke-generating agent to the qetores or lights it outside. “That is a punishment… and that is a warning.” In the latter case, the death isn’t as much a punishment as the consequence of exposure to Hashem’s Presence without the obscuring cloud. Trying to get more spirituality than one is ready for.
The elders were criticized for drinking and celebrating at Mount Sinai (Shemos 24:11). Nadav and Avihu repeat this mistake now — the gemara suggests that their sin here was in serving while inebriated. The pursuit of true spirituality takes years of development, but using drink and parties to create a shallower but immediate experience is a common shortcut.
The Ramchal writes (Mesilas Yesharim ch. 4):
לשלמי הדעת, תהיה להם ההערה במה שיתברר להם כי רק השלימות הוא הדבר הראוי שיחמד מהם ולא זולת זה, ושאין רע גדול מחסרון השלמות וההרחקה ממנו. כי הנה אחר שיתבאר זה אצלם ויתבאר להם כמו כן היות האמצעים אליו המעשים הטובים והמדות הטובות, ודאי הוא שלא יתרצו מעולם להמעיט מאלה האמצעים או להקל בהם.
To those who are complete in knowledge [or, as per the Gra: abstract knowledge in particular?], will have the insight that will clarify for them that only Wholeness and nothing else is worthy of their desire and that there is no worse evil than the lack of and removal from perfection.
And yet a little later he writes:
וזה כי זה פשוט אצל כל בעל דעת, שאין המדריגות מתחלקות בעולם האמיתי שהוא העולם הבא, אלא לפי המעשים.
And this is simple to anyone with any knowledge that there only distinction in levels in the World of Truth which is the World to Come is according to actions.
Is it in the completion, or in the deed? I believe the reason for the Ramchal’s wording is exactly the lesson that Nadav and Avihu lacked. They were “those closest to Me” not because they were on a higher plane than Moshe and Aharon, but because they were processing the most. And similarly, someone born with a calmer disposition isn’t more whole who has more of a temper if that anger is still less than what he was born with. Wholeness is according to one’s actions, how much one has developed Himself, and not on an absoute standard. Thus a person’s actions, which anyone with intellect could prize, really is the wholeness that the more complete person values.
Nadav and Avihu, like the Boesian kohanim gedolim, exposed themselves to more of G-d than they had prepared themselves for. And so they died as a punishment — they remained biqrovai (those close to Me), but as a consequence.
In a generation slated to spend 40 years in the desert in a process that would get us ready for Eretz Yisrael, they couldn’t have leadership who wanted holiness now, rather than valuing the process. Nadav and Avihu could not be Moshe’s and Aharon’s successors.