In this week’s Torah portion of Shemini we find the episode of Nadav and Avihu. By the dedication of the Mishkan they erred while bringing the incense, and Hashem killed them on the spot. “And Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his pan, put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and they brought before Hashem foreign fire, which He had not commanded them. And fire went forth from before Hashem and consumed them, and they died before Hashem” (Vayikra 10:1,2).
According to the Sforno their mistake was as follows: “They were under the impression that just as the incense came after the daily offering whereby the Shechina manifested itself, as it says, ‘It shall be a continual burnt offering throughout your generations at the door of the Ohel Moed before Hashem, where I will meet with you’ (Shemos 29:42), so it would be proper to burn additional incense now that the Divine Glory had been revealed to all the people and the fire had descended, therefore they offered it before Hashem on the inner alter, of which the Torah said, ‘You shall offer no strange incense on it’ (Shemos 30:9). Now even if it was the proper thing to do had they but been commanded to do so, nevertheless they sinned by doing it now, since He had not commanded them, as Chazal said, ‘They decided the halacha in the presence of Moshe their teacher’ (Eruvin 63a).”
The Sforno is of the understanding that Nadav and Avihu’s sin was that they decided a halacha on their own, when they could have asked their teacher, Moshe Rabbeinu, what to do. Even though their thought process made a lot of sense, and it therefore seemed obvious to them that this should be their next move, they still should have consulted with their rebbe who, was not too far away, to be sure they did not overlook something. The next pasuk says that Aharon was silent, and the Sforno observes that he was “comforting himself in the thought that Hashem was sanctified through their death.”
However, at the end of the perek we find that, at first glance, it would seem Aharon himself overlooked something. “And Moshe thoroughly investigated concerning the sin offering he-goat, (The Sforno says, ‘that goat was for an everlasting statute, namely, the goat for Rosh Chodesh, a holy sacrifice for future generation.) and behold, it had been burnt! So, he was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s surviving sons, saying, ‘Why did you not eat the sin offering in the holy place? For it is holy of holies, and He has given it to you to gain forgiveness for the sin of the community, (The Sforno points out, ‘although it was given to you, you had no permission to burn it because it was given to you to eat in order to bear the iniquities of the congregation,) to effect their atonement before the Hashem! Behold, its blood was not brought into the Sanctuary within, so you should have surely eaten it within holy [precincts], as I commanded!’ And Aaron spoke to Moshe, ‘But today, did they offer up their sin offering and their burnt offering before Hashem? But [if tragic events] like these had befallen me, and if I had eaten a sin offering today, would it have pleased Hashem?’ (The Sforno explains, ‘His reasoning was: if the situation were such that they were sacrificing their obligatory sin offering and their freewill burnt offering, even though these sacrifices are not permanent communal holy offerings, and we were to have eaten the sin offering today while in a state of aninus, mourning, would it have been pleasing in the sight of Hashem that in a state of aninus we should also eat a sacrifice which is obligatory upon all generations? It is well known that if a kohen who is an onen eats an offering with knowledge and intent, it cannot atone, as it says regarding kodshim kalim, the lesser holy, ‘I have not eaten thereof in my mourning’ (Devarim 26:14). Although you commanded us to eat the meal offering which is of transitory sanctity, even in a state of mourning, it does not follow that this ruling also applies in the case of permanent sacrifices.) Moshe heard [this], and it pleased him.” (Which the Sforno says means, ‘He rejoiced in the good reasoning of his brother and his sons who understood and taught, [decided the law,] so well) (Vayikra 10:16-20). (Click here for Hebrew text.)
Aharon and his sons were supposed to have eaten their portion of the Rosh Chodesh goat-offering along with the portions of other sacrifices they had brought on the day Nadav and Avihu died, and they were in mourning. Yet they chose to burn the meat of the Rosh Chodesh offering as a mourner would normally do, because they figured that only the special offerings brought specifically for the dedication of the Mishkan were allowed to be eaten in a state of mourning, while the regular offerings that would be continued for generations were not allowed to be eaten in a state of mourning, as halacha normally would dictate.
If Aharon and his sons had just seen the sudden death by Heaven of their sons and brothers for not first consulting with Moshe Rabbeinu, and the Torah even attests that Aharon understood and accepted what happened, why then did they not first consult with Moshe Rabbeinu before wasting and burning the holy meat they were supposed to eat? What is even more perplexing is that Moshe Rabbeinu was happy over Aharon’s response as to why he did what he did; were they not in the same position as Nadav and Avihu? What changed?
If we analyze each situation carefully according to the Sforno we will find that the difference between Nadav and Avihua and Aharon and the rest of his sons was the approach they took to the situation. Nadav and Avihu thought that they had a good idea which made sense, and they had only positive intent. But they did not think it through, to the very last possibility, and therefore they were faulted for acting too quickly when they should have first asked the rabbi if what they were doing was correct. Aharon and the rest of his sons, on the other hand, went through every step of the situation and completely analyzed the issue until they knew that they were making the correct choice, and were able to defend their actions accordingly.
We learn from here no matter how much we think we make sense of something, especially in halacha, we should first consult with higher authorities before acting on impulse, unless we have thoroughly analyzed the matter and know for sure that what we are doing is without a doubt correct. Yet we should be very wary of relying on our own understanding of a situation unless we are absolutely confident and know we aren’t fooling ourselves, which is not so easy to figure out. So better to err on the side of caution.