The Torah in Parashat Bamidbar (3:2) lists the names of the four sons of Aharon who were anointed along with Aharon as kohanim, the first two of which – Nadav and Avihu – were tragically killed by fire on the first day they served as kohanim. As many commentators noted, the Torah surprisingly introduces this list by mentioning both Moshe and Aharon: “These are the descendants of Aharon and Moshe on the day when the Lord spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai.” This verse gives the impression that the Torah is now going to list the names of the children of both Moshe and Aharon, but then it lists only the names of Aharon’s sons. Rashi, based on the Gemara (Sanhedrin 19b), writes that Aharon’s sons were considered Moshe’s sons “because he taught them Torah,” adding, “This teaches that whoever teaches his fellow’s son Torah is considered as though he gave birth to him.” This list is introduced as a list of both Moshe and Aharon’s sons because Aharon’s sons were considered also Moshe’s offspring, since he was their teacher.
Many later writers raised the question of why specifically Aharon’s sons are said to have been Moshe’s “children” because he taught them Torah. Moshe, of course, taught all of Benei Yisrael. Why, then, are Aharon’s sons singled out as having been considered like Moshe’s sons?
Chatam Sofer offers a fascinating explanation of the Gemara’s comment, suggesting that it refers not to all of Aharon’s sons, but only to the two older sons – Nadav and Avihu – who perished. To explain the Gemara’s intent, Chatam Sofer cites Rashi’s comment in Sefer Vayikra (10:3), based on Torat Kohanim, that Nadav and Avihu were on a greater spiritual level than even Moshe and Aharon. They were righteous men, Chatam Sofer writes, but with one significant flaw that ultimately led to their tragic death – arrogance. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 20:7) tells that Nadav and Avihu were not interested in getting married because they felt that no woman would be good enough for them. And the Gemara (Sanhedrin 52a) relates that Nadav and Avihu actually looked forward to the time when Moshe and Aharon would be gone so they could lead Benei Yisrael. Their arrogance can also be seen in the fatal mistake they made – deciding on their own to bring an unwarranted incense offering, for which they were punished. According to Chatam Sofer, Nadav and Avihu were indeed greater than Moshe and Aharon and worthy of leadership – if not for their arrogant character. They had outstanding credentials, but were plagued by a degree of pride and sense of superiority.
This, Chatam Sofer suggests, might be why the Torah makes specific mention of Aharon’s sons being considered Moshe’s sons. Despite their lofty stature, they nevertheless are to viewed as “products” of Moshe because he taught them. Anybody we learn something from, even if we have reason to believe that we are on a higher level of knowledge or piety, deserve our appreciation and respect, insofar as they helped mold and shape us. And thus specifically Nadav and Avihu, who are said to have achieved a higher level than Moshe, are described as Moshe’s children, underscoring the fact that they learned from him, notwithstanding their stature of greatness.
Interestingly, Chatam Sofer suggests that this might be the intent of the Gemara’s famous comment in Masekhet Megilla (29a) that two large mountains in Eretz Yisrael – Karmel and Tavor – wanted to be chosen as the site of Matan Torah, but God declared that they were “blemished” in comparison to the small, modest Mount Sinai. Chatam Sofer suggests that the Gemara here speaks allegorically of Nadav and Avihu, who were “taller” than Moshe, exceeding his stature – except for their “blemish” of arrogance, which disqualified them for leadership. They were deemed unsuitable for the role of leader because a leader must be like Moshe Rabbeinu – humble and respectful of all people, without viewing others as beneath him in any way.