Matters of Timing - By Rabbi Pinchas Winston

Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aharon, took their incense pans and put fire and incense in them and offered an unautho­rized fire before God, which He did not command them to offer ... (VaYikrah 10:1)

When an evil person acts and fails, it is usually because his intended action was inherently evil. However, when great people fail, especially miserably, then what?

... A fire went out from before G-d and consumed them and they died before G-d. Moshe said to Aharon, "This is what G-d told me: I will be sanctified through them who approach Me ..." (VaYikrah 10:1)

Moshe told Aharon, "I knew that this house was to be sanctified by those who are beloved to G-d, but I thought it would be through me or you. Now I see that these (Nadav and Avihu) are greater than me and you! (Rashi)

On a simple level, the level called pshat, Nadav and Avihu made a simple, but tragic mistake. Swept up in the euphoria of the Divine Presence descending over the Mishkan, Nadav and Avihu allowed their intense desire to come close to G-d override their obligation to act within halachic boundaries. And, according to Rebi Yishmael, the fact that they had been intoxicated from wine at the time didn't help the matter (Rashi).

Alternatively, there is Rebi Eliezer's pshat: Nadav and Avihu only died because they rendered halachic decisions in the presence of their teacher (Moshe), something for which the Talmud concludes is punishable by death (Eiruvin 63a). Alternatively again, Nadav and Avihu became punishable by death back at the time they ascended Har Sinai with Moshe, having viewed the Shechina when they had not been permitted to look (Rashi, Shemos 24:10).

However, there is another level of explanation, a far deeper one, one that can also be drawn out of the following statement:

Anyone who pushes the moment, the moment pushes him off; all who are pushed off by the moment, the moment will be pushed off for them. (Brochos 64a)

Life, very often, is a matter of timing. The right action performed with even the right intention, but at the wrong time, can have a disastrous effect. Life is not just a matter of knowing what to do and how to do it, but knowing when to do it as well. Sometimes we can have a burning desire to do something, or to say something, but it is just not the moment. If we keep our peace, then we are often around to complete our intention within the correct set of circumstances. If we don't, then, we and others often become victims of the very crisis we tried to alleviate!

Ever since Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and was banished from the Garden of Eden, history has been a process of returning. While the average person may have accepted life outside the garden as "normal" ("If we're here, we might as well enjoy ourselves!"), others more attuned to what is wrong in the spiritual reality and what needs fixing up, have been working furiously to right the wrong, often at the risk of their own lives. According to the more esoteric side of our tradition, Nadav and Avihu had been such people, and it was to this that Moshe referred.

We know from the medical world and similar disciplines that what is visible on the outside is often a sign of what is taking place on the hidden inside. For example, when a person catches a virus, eventually he will get a fever and his eyes will become droopy, along with a host of other symptoms. People will say, "You don't look well ..." because, they can't feel what we feel, but they can tell by the way we look on the outside somewhat how we must feel on the inside.

The same thing is true with respect to the physical-spiritual world. Everything in the physical world is just an "encasement" of a spiritual reality, acting as a threshold, so-to-speak, to allow us to access that spiritual reality, just as our bodies envelope our souls and allow us to use their potential. The Mishkan was a building, but it was also the physical expression of a spiritual concept. The altar was a base with a fire on it, but every detail embodied another holy, spiritual concept. And the incense was made of spices, but it also acted as a "conduit" between two realities, to achieve a desired spiritual impact through a physical act. This is why it could stop plagues of death, as the Angel of Death had revealed to Moshe atop of Har Sinai (Shabbos 89a).

Nadav and Avihu not only knew this, but they also knew what to do and how to do it. They knew what was missing from creation as a result of Adam's eating from the tree, and how the incense played a role in rectifying the situation. They had even been prepared to risk their lives to trigger the rectification themselves.

However, they had misjudged the moment and had over-estimated their abilities to accomplish what they had set out to do. This was a mistake that was later made by Shlomo HaMelech, and three of the four rabbis who entered "Pardes" (see Chagigah 14b). However, in each case, the noble goal had been the rectification of creation and Adam's mistake; in each case, the timing had been wrong and the ability, over-estimated.

At least three messages emerge. First of all, it is exceedingly important to know one's ability and place, and not to over-exceed one's limitations. This is not so easy to do, since we constantly struggle to find the balance between under-achieving and over-achieving. People, in general, tend to gravitate to one of the two extremes, and finding the balance is a life-long project.

Secondly, it is crucial to never lose sight of the spiritual and physical context within which we live at any given moment in time. It is from this knowledge that we draw the strength to say, "No, now is not the time," or, "If not now, then when?" A world war, G-d forbid, can begin because of a wrongly-timed question or response!

Thirdly, halacha is halacha. As the Maharal states, had Nadav and Avihu acted as they had prior to the giving of Torah at Har Sinai, they would have been heroes. However, once Torah was given and halacha was established, it became the only way to go. Even should a person, for some strange reason, feel smarter than the Torah and want to serve G-d in his own way, he should not. Service of G-d, from the time the Torah was given was fixed and established, and keeping it, even in the face of confusion, is a high level of serving G-d