Vayomer Moshe el Aharon, hu asher dibair Hashem ... vayidom Aharon ... and Moshe said to Aharon, this is what Hashem had said ... and Aharon was silent (Vayikra 10:3)
The day must have been glorious and full of promise. At least part of the sin of the golden calf was about to be expiated, the Tabernacle had been constructed and the means put into position for man to achieve atonement for his sins. Man had demonstrated that his efforts could bring the Shechinah to the temporal world [see our comments to Pikudei]. It was a moment of incredible fulfillment, an instant in time when Heaven and earth were in perfect harmony.
And precisely then, tragedy strikes. Nadav and Avihu are killed by a fire emanating from Heaven and entering their nostrils. Something that they have done, some sin of omission or commission has brought death to Aharon’s oldest sons, his fellow kohanim/servants of Hashem. The Torah is cryptic in describing their sin ... vayakrivu lifnei hashem eish zarah asher lo tziva osom ... they brought a strange fire before G-d that He had not commanded them (ibid. :1). Chazal offer a variety of explanations as to the character of this aish zara - foreign fire. Some maintain that the brothers entered the kodesh hakedoshim - the innner sanctum - with their own incense. Others maintain that their sin was somewhat less grievous, a question of timing. They did not actually go into the inner sanctum but brought incense on the altar in the kodesh even though they had not been instructed to do so. They knew that there was a commandment to do so daily and set out to fulfill it. However, they failed to wait for Moshe to command them to do so, not realizing that he was waiting for the Heavenly fire to appear on the altar before proceeding with the rest of the service.
Another opinion maintains they were guilty of reaching a halachic decision without consulting Moshe. In their opinion, it was permissible to use a fire whose source was not from the altar. Irrespective of whether or not this was correct; they should have consulted with Moshe before acting. Another school of thought teaches that the sons entered the Tabernacle while inebriated, or that they set out to perform the Divine service even though they were celibate. These latter opinions would seem to be of the opinion that aish zara - the foreign fire - should not be interpreted literally, but rather as a euphemism for misguided zeal - i.e., in the case of wine they were culpabale for using an external means to demonstrate their spirituality or in the case of serving while unmarried they were guilty of equating permanent abstinence with holiness.
The common denominator for all these opinions is that Nadav and Avihu were worthy of death because they went beyond the parameters of what G-d had commanded at a point in history when no deviation could be sanctioned. As pure as their intentions might have been, they violated the first rule of the Divine service: It must be performed precisely in the manner that G-d commands. Man is tempted, as we have mentioned in the past, to add his own flavors and spices to the menu of avodas Hashem, motivated by a sincere desire to make it more meaningful and relevant. But while his conscious intent might be laudable, subconsciously he is declaring that only he - man - can determine the proper way of creating the bond between G-d and man.
G-d is therefore exacting in his requirements, especially when it comes to the tzaddikim with whom he is m’dakdek k’chut ha-s’arah - stringent even as concerns a hair’s breadth [of deviation from His commands]. The tzaddik must act as a role model and if he permits himself even minor changes, it follows that the common man will make major changes. This was the essence of Moshe’s response to Aharon’s anguished attempt to understand what had transpired.
B’krovei ekodesh v’al pnai kol ha-am e’kovaid ... I will be sanctified by those who are near to Me and through this, the entire nation will respect Me (ibid. :4). Moshe reassures Aharon that Nadav and Avihu must have been holier than either of them, for they had been chosen as the vehicles through which this Divine lesson would be taught. Their death, for a sin that would seem to be minor, would serve as an everlasting warning to be extraordinarily careful.
And Aharon’s reaction: silence! Rashi explains that Aharon was rewarded for his silence, but the silence nevertheless seems to be astounding. It does not state that Aharon accepted Moshe’s explanation of the events, it does not tell us that Aharon was consoled by his brother’s words. All it says is that he was silent. Whatever doubts he might have had, whatever pain he might have felt, whatever questions he still wanted to ask were put away in the drawer, never to be removed.
It is now almost a month since eight young tzaddikim were murdered in the library of Yeshivas Merkaz HaRav in Yerushalayim. Through our sins, we lack Chazal to explain what G-d’s plan was in taking them, how their deaths serve to teach us what we need to change, what we need to improve. All that we have is the silence of Aharon, the stoic strength to accept the Divine decrees that we cannot understand.