The Torah in Parashat Shemini tells of the tragic death of Nadav and Avihu – Aharon’s older two sons – after they brought an unwarranted incense offering on the day of the Mishkan’s consecration. Midrashic sources attribute various different misdeeds to Nadav and Avihu, including the fact that they refused to marry. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 20:10) tells that many suitable women were eager to marry Nadav and Avihu, but they insisted that there were no women worthy of being their wives. Being the sons of Aharon and nephews of Moshe, they saw themselves as belonging to an elite class into which nobody was worthy of joining by marrying them.
The Klausenberger Rebbe elaborates on the Midrash’s description, suggesting that Nadav and Avihu’s arrogant rejection of prospective marriage partners actually resulted from their high stature of piety. Having ascended to such a lofty level, other people’s slight flaws and deficiencies seemed to them intolerable. The Rebbe draws a comparison to the famous story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son who spent twelve years hiding in a cave learning Torah, and after they emerged from their hiding place, they could not bear the sight of people engaging in mundane, worldly pursuits. Similarly, Nadav and Avihu were generally righteous men whose piety led them to look disdainfully upon others who had not achieved their spiritual levels, and this was their mistake.
The Rebbe adds that this might also underlie Nadav and Avihu’s decision to offer incense on the altar. Citing the Rashbam, the Rebbe claims that Nadav and Avihu brought this offering before God’s revelation through fire in the Mishkan, which is described in the previous verse (9:24). He explains that when Nadav and Avihu saw that God’s fire did not immediately descend to consume the sacrifices that Aharon had just offered, they instinctively concluded that this was due to the people’s low spiritual stature. As such, they reasoned, it was up to them to bring a special offering. And so this mistake, too, resulted from their arrogance.
In a similar vein, the Rebbe explains the Gemara’s account of how Nadav and Avihu saw Moshe and Aharon walking with “all of Yisrael behind them,” and they expressed to one another their anticipation of the day when Moshe and Aharon would die and they would assume the mantle of leadership. When Nadav and Avihu looked at the people – whom they look upon with disdain – following Moshe and Aharon, it angered them that Moshe and Aharon tolerated and lovingly tended to people of such lowly stature. They felt that Moshe and Aharon were too indulgent and did not do enough to banish sinners and keep the nation in line, and they therefore looked forward to the time when they would be the leaders.
According to the Rebbe’s approach, the Midrashic accounts of Nadav and Avihu warn against the arrogance and condescension that can often result from spiritual growth. Achievement does not give us license to look with contempt upon those who have not reached the level we feel we have reached. Part and parcel of piety from Chazal’s perspective is looking kindly and favorably upon those who are not as pious as we think they should be. Truly righteous people act humbly and patiently towards others and are able to respect people for their qualities despite their shortcomings.