Skip to main content
Reading Midrash -
Lesson 45

Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory Vayikra Rabba 20:10 (continued)

Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan

The midrash now opens up a new approach to the question of the sin of Nadav and Avihu. Until now, the midrash has focused on the various Biblical accounts and references to the deaths of Nadav and Avihu in attempting to determine their sin. In a few cases we have seen the rabbis attribute a sin to the brothers that does not seem to be rooted in the text but rather is motivated by the rabbis’ various ideological agendas. Now, the midrash turns to a new passage from the Torah in their search for the brothers’ sin. Nadav and Avihu do not first enter the Biblical stage in Vayikra 10, which describes the circumstances of their death in detail. Already in Shemot 24, in the description of Moshe’s ascent to Mt. Sinai, they have a prominent place. Along with Moshe and Aharon, they are ordered to ascend the mountain, followed by the seventy elders. At the end of the passage we read,


Then Moshe and Aharon, Nadav and Avihu

and seventy elders of Israel ascended.

And they saw the God Israel:

Under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire,

Like the very sky for purity.

And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He laid not His hand;

They beheld God and they ate and drank. (Shemot 24:9-11)


This remarkable passage is perhaps the most detailed description of an encounter between God and man in the Torah and it represents one of the high points of God’s relationship with the people of Israel. Our midrash, however, is fixated by the appearance of Nadav and Avihu here. Exploiting the midrashic propensity for developing the ties between disparate verses, the midrash sees this passage as being causally linked to Leviticus 10, the next time Nadav and Avihu appear as active characters. Something described in the Shemot passage, they propose, will give us the key to understanding the reason for Nadav and Avihu’s deaths. The midrash’s first proposal is as follows:


Moreover their arrogance may be inferred from the following:

“And unto Moses He said: Come up unto the Lord, you, and Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel” (Ex. 24:1).

This teaches us that Moses and Aharon went first,

Nadav and Avihu walked behind them,

and all Israel followed,

and Nadav and Avihu were saying: ‘When will these two old men die and we assume authority over the community?’


This interpretation focuses on the very first verse of the passage, which describes the order of the procession up Mt. Sinai. The verse identifies three distinct categories, first Moshe and Aharon, then Nadav and Avihu and finally, the elders.  Nadav and Avihu thus had a special status, ahead of the elders and the rest of the people but behind Moshe and Aharon. They are apparently positioned to succeed Moshe and Aharon to the leadership.


On the basis of this scenario, the midrash imagines what Nadav and Avihu might have been thinking or feeling as they found themselves between their elders and the rest of the people. The midrash imagines that, as is often the case, the brothers did not like their position in the number two slot. They could not wait for their father and uncle to pass on so that they could seize the leadership. The brothers’ sin in this case is similar to the sins of not marrying or not having children. In all of these cases Nadav and Avihu come out as arrogant over-reachers, who have an exaggerated idea of their own status and potential.


This reading does not seem particularly rooted in the text. The verse from Shemot inspires the setting of the narrative that the midrash tells. However, there is no hint in the verses that suggests that the brothers had any sort of conversation on the way, let alone a seditious one. Rather, this story would seem to be motivated more by the rabbis’ desire to teach a lesson. The desire of the younger generation to push away the older generation and take charge is one of the constants of human social dynamics. In some cases, the young generation succeeds in wresting power from their elders. Sometimes the older generation agrees to cede control. In other cases, the older generation maintains control, forcing the younger to bide their time until the older generation passes from the stage. By casting Nadav and Avihu in the role of the malcontented younger generation, the midrash sides with the older generation and its right to hold power for as long as possible.


The midrash now presents a brief debate about the exact details of the story it has just told:


R. Judah in the name of R. Aibu said that they uttered this to one another with their mouths,

[while] R. Pinchas said that they harbored the thought in their hearts.


What difference does it make if the brothers thought or verbally expressed their opinions? This question can be answered from two perspectives. From an exegetical point of view, by insisting that Nadav and Avihu only thought these things, R. Pinchas moderates the brothers’ sin. They never actually expressed their rebellious thoughts. As such, the brothers do not come out quite as bad as they do according to those who say that they actually spoke these words. From an ideological point of view, our concern is not with the brothers but with the sin of wanting to displace one’s elders. From this perspective, R. Pinchas is saying that this sin is so severe that even thinking such things is a capital crime. The others do not go so far. They feel than only speaking such sentiments is worthy of such severe punishment.


The midrash sums up with a proverb.


R. Berekhya remarked:

The Holy One, blessed be He, told them:

“Boast not yourself of tomorrow” (Prov. 27:1)!

Many foals have died and their skins were turned into saddle cloths for their mothers’ backs!


Indeed, the midrash presents a double proverb. The first is a poetic general lesson from the book of Proverbs. The full verse, according to the JPS translation is, “Do not boast of tomorrow, for you do not know what the day will bring.” The second is an earthier, popular Aramaic proverb that deals with a specific case. By citing these proverbs, the midrash draws our attention to slightly different aspects of Nadav and Avihu’s actions. It was a folly merely for the brothers to assume that they would outlive Moshe and Aharon, as indeed they did not. The proverbs suggest that there is no certainty in life and it is best not to have excessive expectations for the future. The second proverb deals specifically with the death of children before their parents. I find the image of a horse wearing its own child’s skin on her back to be quite graphic and shocking. It seems to suggest that the parent is indifferent to, and even benefits from, the child’s death.


The Midrash now begins a careful reading of the passage about Nadav and Avihu in Shemot and comes up with yet another proposed sin for which the brothers were punished:


A further proof is from the following:

“And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He laid not His hand” (Ex. 24:11).

From this, said R. Pinchas, it may be inferred that they deserved to have a hand laid on them.


The Midrash begins its analysis with verse 11, “And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He laid not His hand.” R. Pinchas reasonably deduces from the fact that the Torah mentions that they were not killed that, in fact, they deserved to be killed. However, who is “they?” The term “nobles of the children of Israel” (atzilei benei yisrael) would seem to apply to all those on the slope of Mt. Sinai, Moshe, Aharon, Nadav, Avihu and the seventy elders. R. Pinchas, however, understands this phrase as referring specifically to Nadav and Avihu. How does he come to this conclusion?


The Sifrei (section # 356), the tannaitic midrash on Devarim, records that in the Temple there existed a Torah scroll that had an alternate reading of this verse. Instead of the word atzilei (“nobles”) it had the word za’atutei, which the Jastrow dictionary translates as “youths.” This Torah scroll also had the word za’atutei in verse 5, “He designated some young men among the Israelites and they offered burnt offerings…” Whereas our text uses the common word na’arei to mean “young men” this other Torah had the word za’atutei. These substitutions of the word za’atutei are also referred to in the list of changes made by the elders who translated the Torah for King Ptolomey (see Megilla 9a).  I would like to propose that R. Pinchas’s interpretation is somehow influenced by this alternate reading of the text.  It is easy to see why one might assume that the “young men” of verse 5 were in fact Nadav and Avihu. Since only priests can officiate at sacrifices, Nadav and Avihu were in fact the only “young men” to whom the verse might be referring.   According to the alternate reading, the Torah uses the same word for young men, za’atutei, in verse 11 as it did in verse 5. Hence, this verse must also be referring to Nadav and Avihu. It seems likely that initially, the interpretation of verse 11 as referring to Nadav and Avihu was made with reference to the alternate reading of the verse and was only later applied to our version.


We now understand how the midrash deduces that Nadav and Avihu were worthy of death. But what was their sin? In order to determine the nature of the sin, the rabbis move on to the last phrase of the verse:


For R. Joshua said: Did provisions go up with them to Sinai, that you should be able to say: “And they beheld God, and did eat and drink” (ib.)?

No, but it teaches you that they fed their eyes upon the Shekhina.


The midrash finds the reference to eating and drinking on Mount Sinai anomalous. Where did they get food from? Were they planning a picnic in the midst of this revelation? Rather, the midrash understands the phrase “and did eat and drink” as a metaphorical comment on the previous statement, “And they beheld God”. Not only did the brothers see God, but they did so in a manner that was akin to consuming food- “they fed their eyes upon the Shekhina.” But what does this metaphor mean? The midrash suggests three possible answers:


“And they beheld God,” as a man looks upon his neighbor while in the act of eating and drinking.

R. Yochanan says: They derived actual nourishment; as is proved by the citation,

“In the light of the king's countenance is life” (Prov. 16:15).

The text, said R. Tanchuma, teaches us that they uncovered their heads, became presumptuous and fed their eyes on the Shekhina.


The meaning of the first explanation is not entirely clear. It seems to me that “looking at ones neighbor while eating and drinking”, suggests a kind of casual relationship. People who eat together at the same table generally have a relatively intimate relationship. According to this interpretation Nadav and Avihu did have the appropriate reverence when looking at God.


R. Yochanan, on the other hand, takes the image of eating and drinking more literally. In looking at God, they derived actual nourishment, akin to eating and drinking, from looking at the divine presence. In this opinion, Nadav and Avihu’s sin appears to be that they gained benefit from looking at God.


The final gloss on “fed their eyes on the Shekhina” comes from R. Tanchuma. His interpretation is most similar to the first one offered. Nadav and Avihu lacked respect and were presumptuous in the face of God.


I lack sufficient background in theology and mysticism to really discuss the meaning and implications of the sin “feeding one’s eyes on the Shekhina.” However, I would like to briefly note some of the ways in which this sin relates to the others sins of Nadav and Avihu that have been proposed thus far. On the one hand, this represents a whole new category of sin. Previously, Nadav and Avihu had been charged with sins that were either moral in nature or which involved the Temple ritual. Now, the brothers are charged with a theological or metaphysical sin, an offence against God Himself. Yet this sin is, in some sense, thematically consistent with many of the other sins that have been proposed. Here too, underlying the brothers’ actions is a certain overreaching or presumptuousness, a desire to rise to a level that is ultimately beyond them. It is these attributes and attitudes that unify the entire conversation about Nadav and Avihu’s sins. Finally, this sin appears to have a sort of inverse relationship with the sin of not getting married and having children. Previously, the brothers were accused of failing to partake in an earthly pleasure which was rightfully theirs. Now, they are charged with indulging in a spiritual pleasure that is not permitted to them.  In both cases they overestimate their spiritual stature. 


The Midrash now compares Nadav and Avihu’s behavior to that of Moshe:


R. Joshua of Sikhnin in the name of R. Levi observed:

Moses did not feed his eyes on the Shekhina and derived benefit from the Shekhina.

'He did not feed his eyes on the Shekhina,’ as it says, “And Moses hid his face” (Ex. 3:6).

‘And he derived benefit from the Shekhina,’ as it says, “Moses knew not that the skin of his face sent forth beams” (ib. 34:29).

As a reward for “And Moses hid his face”

he attained to the privilege of,

“And the Lord spoke unto Moses face to face” (ib. 33:11).

As a reward for, “He was afraid” (ib. 3:6)

he attained to the privilege of,

“They were afraid to come near him” (ib. 34:30).

 As a reward for, “Afraid to look” (ib.)

he attained to the privilege of,

“And the similitude of the Lord does he behold” (Num. 12:8).


Nadav and Avihu, however, fed their eyes on the Shekhina and did not derive benefit there from,

as may be inferred from the following:

“And Nadav and Avihu died before the Lord” (ib. 3:4).


When Moshe first encountered the divine presence at the burning bush his immediate response was to avert his gaze, as the verse states, “And Moshe hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” As reward for his reverence for the divine, Moshe was granted unprecedented connection and access to the divine presence.  His own face shone with the divine light. Furthermore, Moshe was the only mortal to gaze directly at God’s face. Moshe’s actions serve as a counterpoint for Nadav and Avihu’s reckless gazing at the Divine for which they were severely punished.


The midrash now returns to a theme that it began to develop earlier in the parasha:


Did they die ’Before the Lord’?

No; but it teaches us that it is a grievous matter to the Holy One, blessed be He, when the children of righteous men die during their father's lifetime.

R. Yudan of Yafo was asked by R. Pinchas son of R. Chama in the name of R. Simon:

Why is it that in this passage you read the expression

’Before the Lord’, ‘Before the Lord’ twice,

while further on it says, “In the presence of Aharon their father” (ib.) only once?

It must be to teach you that to the Lord it was twice as grievous as to their father.


Once again, we see the notion that God grieved for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu.  The Midrash here presents two variations of this idea. In the first interpretation God is upset, not by the deaths of Nadav and Avihu per se, but rather at the impact these deaths had on their father, Aharon. This is consistent with the assumptions of this section of the midrash, that Nadav and Avihu were sinners who deserved to die. Nevertheless, all killing, even when justified, caries with it negative ramifications. No matter how severe the brothers’ behavior was, their death was still a tragedy for their father. God recognized the duality of this event and hence joined Aharon in his mourning.


In the second version, God mourns the deaths themselves and not merely their impact on Aharon. Indeed, God’s response to the deaths is reported as being twice as severe as Aharon’s. The fact that God executes justice upon His children does not mean that He is indifferent to their fates or that He takes pleasure in their demise. Quite to the contrary, God is deeply distressed by killings which He must undertake in order to maintain justice in His world.


In conclusion to this thread, which posits that Nadav and Avihu’s sin actually took place on Mt. Sinai, the midrash presents a mashal:


“In the wilderness of Sinai” (ib.).

But, said R. Meir, did they die in the wilderness of Sinai?

No; but it teaches us that they had received their sentences of death on Mount Sinai.

The matter may be illustrated by the case of a king who was celebrating the marriage of his daughter, and something discreditable was discovered in her best man.

The king thought:

If I slay him now I shall mar my daughter's joy. [I will not do this],

but at a later date my own joyous celebration will arrive

and it is better that the deed be done during my joyous celebration

and not during the joyous celebration of my daughter.

In the same way the Holy One, blessed be He, thought:

If I slay them now I shall mar the joy of My daughter.

At a later date My own joyous celebration will arrive.

By the expression ‘My daughter’ the Torah is meant.

Hence, when it is written,

“In the day of his espousals, and in the day of the gladness of his heart” (S.S. 3:11),

“The day of his espousals” alludes to Mount Sinai,

and “In the day of the gladness of his heart” alludes to the Tent of Meeting.


The question remains, if Nadav and Avihu sinned on Mount Sinai, why were they not punished right then and there? Why did God wait until the dedication of the Mishkan to execute His punishment? The midrash compares these two events to two celebrations in a king’s court, the wedding of the king’s daughter, and a celebration in honor of the king. The king would be loath to mar his daughter’s big day by punishing one of the bridal party in the middle of the celebration. The king would rather disrupt his own celebration and punish the offender then. So too, God chooses not to mar the giving of the Torah, which is compared to God’s daughter, by slaying Nadav and Avihu in the midst of the revelation. Rather, He waits until the dedication of the Mishkan, a celebration devoted entirely to His honor, in order to execute judgment. This shows how God places the honor of the Torah even before His own.  

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!