The Torah records that at Matan Torah, Nadav and Avihu, together with seventy elders merited a special mystical vision of Hashem’s Glory. At the time of their prophecy, the Torah also adds that “they ate and drank”.[Shemot 24: 11.] Some commentators explain their “eating and drinking” in a positive light, e.g. that the vision nourished them like food (Zohar). Others, including Rashi interpret the eating negatively; that despite their ‘metaphysical comprehension’ they acted flippantly and disrespectfully. [Compare Yaakov’s reaction after his vision of the angels ascending the ladder…that he said “Had I known that Hashem’s Presence is in this place I would not have slept here.” (Rashi, Parshat Vayeitzei)]
Rashi quoting the midrash R’ Tanchumah adds that the lack of awe exhibited by the elders was deserving of punishment, but Hashem did not wish to mar the great event of Matan Torah and therefore delayed their punishment to the time of the consecration of the Mishkan (in the case of Nadav and Avihu) [and regarding the elders and to the incident of the “mit’onnim”.]
The problem I would like to address is – Why isn’t the consecration of the Mishkan, a momentous event in its own right, deserving that it’s celebration also not be marred by tragedy? If the punishment was being delayed so as not to interfere with Matan Torah, why did Hashem allow the punishment to be exacted during the consecration of the Mishkan? Why did Hashem postpone punishment at the time of Matan Torah and not at the time of Chanukat Hamishkan? Perhaps through understanding this detail, we can better understand the nature of these two events.
Two approaches may be helpful in addressing our problem:
First, at Matan Torah, Nadav, Avihu and the Elders sinned as private individuals whereas during Chanukat Hamishkan, Nadav and Avihu were acting as Kohanim – in their official capacities and as such, they tainted the event by “bringing fire that Hashem did not command”. [There is a similar explanation regarding Hashem’s forgiving David and not Shaul.]
A second approach could revolve around understanding the difference between learning Torah (Matan Torah) and Prayer (Chanukat Hamishkan). The act of prayer, where finite man talks directly to Hashem the infinite, requires absolute humility and self effacement on the part of man. Many halachot reflect this principle -for example – that one is not allowed to pray on any pedestal or platform- as the verse in Tehillim says (“from the depths I have have called unto You Hashem..”). Thus Nadav and Avihu’s ‘innovative – deviation’ in the Mishkan from Hashem’s directives was the absolute antithesis of what prayer- worship is about.i.e. self negation in the face of the omnipotent Hashem.
The approach to the mitzvah of Torah learning is slightly different. The gemara Baba Metziah 59b records the dispute that Rabi Eliezer had with the Sages regarding a particular law in the area of ritual impurity. When Rabi Eliezer resorted to proving the truth of his viewpoint by invoking certain miracles Rabi Yehoshua stood up and declared “It states in the Torah – “It (the Torah) is not in heaven” – this means that matters of halacha are not decided by miracles, rather the qualified sages in each generation are the custodians to interpret the halacha.” The gemarah adds that later Eliyahu the prophet quoted Hashem as having said: “My children have defeated Me, my children have defeated Me”( i,e, the qualified sage determines the true interpretation of the Torah and the “objective truth” is suspended.) Thus, the learning of Torah involves a certain degree of boldness and confidence, with which one interprets and develop Hashem’s Will in this world.
Overconfidence in an area which requires confidence (i.e. learning Torah), is deemed less severe than overconfidence in an area where a sense of vulnerability and insecurity are necessary requirements (i.e. prayer).