Parshat Shmini and the Haftarah of Shmini both contain stories of tragic deaths. Parshat Shmini describes how, just at the culmination of the dedication of the Mishkan, Nadav and Avihu lit a fire for the incense, and were killed by the Divine Fire that appeared. The Haftarah of Shmini describes how, while bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Yerushalayim, Uzah, one of the people leading the procession, reached out to keep the Ark from falling, and was struck down by G-d. What did they do that was so terrible that caused them to lose their lives?
To understand Uzah’s story, we need some context. Several decades before the events described in this Haftarah, the Ark had been captured in a battle with the Plishtim. Its presence caused plagues to break out in the Plishti towns, and ultimately, the Ark was placed in the care of Avinadav from Kiryat Yearim, where it stayed without incident for many years. After David HaMelech made Yerushalayim his capital city, he arranged for the Ark to be brought there. The descendants of Avinadav placed it upon a cart and walked before it. Then the following happened:
…. וַיִּשְׁלַח עֻזָּא אֶל אֲרוֹן הָאֱ-לֹהִים וַיֹּאחֶז בּוֹ כִּי שָׁמְטוּ הַבָּקָר: וַיִּחַר אַף ה’ בְּעֻזָּה וַיַּכֵּהוּ שָׁם הָאֱ-לֹהִים עַל הַשַּׁל וַיָּמָת שָׁם עִם אֲרוֹן הָאֱ-לֹהִים:
…Uzah reached for the Ark of G-d and grabbed it, because the oxen had slipped. Hashem’s anger was kindled at Uzah, G-d struck him down due to the error. He died there, with the Ark of G-d. (Shmuel I 6:6-7)
Uzah reached out to keep the Ark from falling off the cart, and lost his life. The Midrash explains what his error was:
אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא הארון נושאיו נשא, עצמו לא כל שכן
G-d said to him, the Ark carries those who carry it — to carry itself, how much more so! (Bamidbar Rabbah 4:20)
The Midrash refers to the crossing of the Jordan River, when the Jewish People entered Eretz Yisrael. As soon as the Cohanim who were carrying it stepped into the water, the river stopped flowing, allowing the Jewish People to cross safely. Then:
וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר תַּם כָּל הָעָם לַעֲבוֹר וַיַּעֲבֹר אֲרוֹן ה’ וְהַכֹּהֲנִים לִפְנֵי הָעָם
When all the people finished passing, the Ark of Hashem, and the Cohanim, crossed before the people. (Yehoshua 4:11)
It does not say “the Cohanim with the Ark of Hashem crossed;” it says “the Ark of Hashem crossed.” The Ark made it possible for the Cohanim to cross the river, not the other way around.
The Midrash points out that Uzah should have known that the Ark was not an ordinary object that follows the laws of nature; it did not need him to keep it from falling.
Nadav and Avihu made a similar mistake for similar reasons.
וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וַיֵּצְאוּ וַיְבָרֲכוּ אֶת הָעָם וַיֵּרָא כְבוֹד ה’ אֶל כָּל הָעָם: וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי ה’ וַתֹּאכַל עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ אֶת הָעֹלָה וְאֶת הַחֲלָבִים וַיַּרְא כָּל הָעָם וַיָּרֹנּוּ וַיִּפְּלוּ עַל פְּנֵיהֶם: וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ קְטֹרֶת וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי ה’ אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם:וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי ה’ וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם וַיָּמֻתוּ לִפְנֵי ה’:
Moshe and Aharon came to the Tent of Assembly. They went out, and blessed the nation. The Glory of Hashem manifested itself to the entire nation. Fire went forth from before Hashem and ate what was on the Altar, the offerings and the fats; the entire nation saw; they sang out, they fell to the ground in worship. The sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, each took a fire pan; they put in them fire, and on that they placed incense; they brought before Hashem an external fire that He had not commanded them. Fire went forth from before Hashem and ate them. They died before Hashem. (VaYikra 9:23-24, 10:1-2)
According to Rashbam, the “fire that went forth” in both verses is the same fire. The order of events then is as follows:
Everything had been laid out the final stage of the dedication of the Mishkan, and all that was missing for the fulfillment of its purpose of “I shall dwell among you” was the manifestation of the Presence of G-d. While waiting for it to appear, Moshe and Aharon left the Mishkan and went out to bless the nation. After their blessing, G-d’s Presence manifested itself, in two ways: the Cloud of Glory appeared on the Mishkan, and Divine Fire came down and consumed the offering.
The verses then shift to Nadav and Avihu, who had remained inside the Mishkan, and were waiting for G-d’s Presence to appear. For whatever reason – perhaps impatience, perhaps arrogance, perhaps a misplaced sense of devotion – instead of continuing to wait like they were supposed to, they decided to take matters into their own hands, and make their own fire. But the Divine Fire did come down, without their help. It started at the internal incense Altar, where they were standing, and went out to the external Altar where the sacrifices had been laid out. Nadav and Avihu, who were not supposed to be there, were caught in its path.
Nadav and Avihu must have thought that they were operating in the physical world, where fire is lit by human beings. But just as G-d did not need Uzah to keep the Ark from falling, He did not need Nadav and Avihu to make fire in the Mishkan.
Disobeying the laws of the Torah regarding objects that do not quite obey the laws of physics can be hazardous to one’s health.
Copyright © Kira Sirote
In memory of my parents, Peter & Nella Rozenberg, z”l
לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי פנחס בן נתן נטע ואמי מורתי חנה בת זעליג ז”ל