Am Yisrael waited a long time for the completion of the Mishkan. Months had been spent investing immense effort into the minute details of its construction. Each brick had to be in its proper place, each of the keilim had to be precisely the size Hashem had prescribed. And now, finally, the long-awaited days have arrived. Benei Yisrael celebrate for eight days the Mishkan’s completion; each day it was dissembled and then reconstructed. On the eighth day of the miluim, they celebrated the Mishkan’s consecration and the installation of Aharon and his sons as kohanim.
Just then tragedy strikes. Aharon’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, place fire on their fire pans and bring an offering that Hashem had not commanded. Fire suddenly descends from the heavens and consumes them. Aharon’s two sons fail in their duties and become the first of the kohanim to die while performing the delicate service. The question bursts forth from the text: why? Why did Hashem choose such a drastic means to demonstrate that what they did was incorrect? Moreover, what rendered their act improper? True, they brought an offering that Hashem had not commanded, but on the other hand, the Torah never tells that Hashem forbade such an offering. Why did He punish them so severely?
Rashi, who was well aware of the enormity of this tragedy, establishes that Aharon’s sons entered the Sanctuary while inebriated – meaning, without clarity of thought. It turns out, then, that the act itself was perhaps acceptable, but the intention behind it was not. A person who drinks wine cannot thereafter bring an offering to Hashem. An intoxicated person is entirely within himself, he is unaware of his actions, and he therefore deserves severe punishment if he brings an offering to Hashem in such a state. The encounter between a person bringing an offering and Hashem can occur only if the individual offers his heart, as well, to his Father in heaven. Subjugation of the heart heavenward is what yields atonement, not the korban itself.
The Rashbam explains somewhat differently, claiming that Nadav and Avihu sinned in that they prevented a Kiddush Hashem. Moshe and the entire nation waited to see if the Almighty would bring His Shechina to rest upon the Mishkan. Will the many months of toil turn out to have been for naught? The arrival of the Shechina would amount to Hashem’s affirmation that the Mishkan is not merely a physical structure, but rather fulfills that which He had promised, “They shall make for Me a Mikdash – and I will dwell in their midst.” The pasuk does not say that Hashem will dwell in “its” – the Mishkan’s – midst, but rather “in their midst” – meaning, Hashem bestows His Shechina upon each and every member of Benei Yisrael.
Nadav and Avihu prevented this immense Kiddush Hashem from taking place. Their intentions were indeed pure. They wanted to hasten Hashem’s revelation in the world and the Shechina’s resting in the Mishkan. But the act was wrongful. They should have waited for Hashem to do this Himself.
How important it is to learn that haste often prevents a person from reaching higher levels commensurate with his unique personality. At times a person lacks the necessary patience, and he indeed ascends, but only to then descend, trying to accomplish too much, too quickly.
Similarly, the Sefat Emet explains why each korban has a specifically designated time for the consumption of its meat:
“Each korban therefore had its unique time, place and people [permitted to partake of the meat]. Some were eaten for a day and a night, by male kohanim and within the courtyard, whereas others were eaten for two days and a night, by all people, in any location. The reason is that the force of kedusha can spread through the shelamim for two days, and it is therefore forbidden to restrict the spread of the kedusha, and it is forbidden to expand it. It similarly says regarding Aharon, ‘He shall not come at all times into the Sanctuary… Only with this shall Aharon come into the Sanctuary… ‘ It is likely an allusion, that the word ‘be-zot’ (‘with this’) means that through this itself, that he will not come at all times into the Sanctuary – with this force he shall come into the Sanctuary.”
A person can learn from here that this is the important quality of a command. The Almighty knows the inner workings of every soul, and if He did not command the performance of a given act at this point, then apparently this is not the time for it. Perhaps later God will indeed issue such a command. But rashness and reckless haste, as we know, result from the “Satan,” and are often very destructive.