The opening verses of Parashat Shemini tell of Moshe’s commands to Aharon and to Benei Yisrael on the day when Aharon and his sons began serving as kohanim in the Mishkan for the first time. We read that Aharon and Benei Yisrael prepared the sacrifices that Moshe had instructed them to offer, and the entire nation then assembled by the entrance to the Mishkan. Moshe announced, “This is the thing which the Lord has commanded to do” (9:6). Surprisingly, this announcement is not followed by any specific instructions to the people. Rather, Moshe turned to Aharon and told him to proceed to offer the sacrifices. It is thus unclear what Moshe meant when he announced to the entire nation, “This is the thing which the Lord has commanded to do.”
Chazal, in Torat Kohanim, offer a surprising explanation of this verse, commenting that Moshe was telling Benei Yisrael, “Eliminate this evil inclination from within you.” Moshe’s command, according to Torat Kohanim, did not relate to any of the formal requirements of this day, but was rather a general admonition to “eliminate this evil inclination” from within their hearts. To what exactly does this refer? And why would Moshe instruct the people specifically now to “eliminate that evil inclination”?
An insightful explanation of Torat Kohanim’s comment is offered by Netziv, in his Ha’amek Davar commentary. Netziv writes that Moshe speaks here of a specific, and inconspicuous, sinful inclination, one which disguises as altruistic spiritual ambition. According to Netziv, Moshe warns the people of the dangers of unrestrained spiritual zeal and passion, the belief that such enthusiasm allows one to break halakhic barriers and do whatever he wishes in the name of avodat Hashem. The desire to serve God in ways which He did not command and of which He does not approve, sincere and genuine as it feels, is a manifestation of the yetzer ha-ra – it’s a sinful drive, and an especially dangerous one, as it is cloaked in a veneer of altruism. As Benei Yisrael now completed the process of constructing and inaugurating the Mishkan, a process which they approached with remarkable fervor and excitement, and they now eagerly anticipated the sight of the Shekhina descending into the Mishkan, they needed to be warned, “This is the thing which the Lord has commanded to do.” They needed to be reminded that their excitement and fervor should not lead them to step beyond the limits that God had prescribed, that their zeal and enthusiasm must be channeled specifically in the direction that He has charted for them, in strict compliance with His laws and commands.
According to Netziv, then, Chazal interpreted this verse as a tragic foreshadowing of the event told later – the death of Nadav and Avihu. After witnessing the dramatic spectacle of a heavenly fire descending to consume the sacrifices on the altar, signifying the arrival of the Shekhina, Nadav and Avihu – two of the newly-consecrated kohanim – decided to bring an incense offering that God had not commanded. They were instantly killed by fire for this breach of the Mishkan’s strict code of law. Various explanations have been given for the precise nature of Nadav and Avihu’s mistake, but it seems likely that they were overcome by religious zeal and passion, and yearned to draw closer to God through their own personal offering. Their sin is precisely the kind of mistake to which Moshe refers in his announcement, “This is the thing which the Lord has commanded to do.” Sincere religious feeling does not justify actions which God forbids. Legitimate and genuine spiritual fervor must be channeled towards the direction shown to us by Halakha, and does not provide grounds for sidestepping halakhic requirements and restrictions.