The Torah mentions the sin of Nadav and Avihu four times, the first of which appears in this week’s parsha, Shmini. It is through the story of their death — which lacks a clear reason — that the commentaries define what it means to live a life of kedusha.
On the 8th day of the inauguration of the mishkan, as the Shechinah was about to descend, Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu offer up a “foreign fire” and are instantly killed by God. Their sin is not exactly clear and is further confused by another later account in Achrei Mot, which describes them drawing “too close before God.” Given this ambiguity, the sages suggest various interpretations of what they did wrong, including: sacrificing a korban which was not commanded, teaching Torah in front of their teacher Moshe, entering the sanctuary naked, performing their duties while drunk, refusing to marry or have children.
Some of these interpretations highlight a blurring of boundaries, acting without inhibitions, which portrays their behavior negatively. Others see more positive motivation. The midrash Sifra teaches that they added love upon love of God. Meaning they wanted to stay close to the Divine presence, to live a wholly spiritual life and did not want to return to the physical and material world. The Lubavitcher Rebbe refers to this as having only the attribute of running toward the spiritual, without also returning to the everyday to uplift others. Having both is real kedusha.
This was also the approach of Rabbi Akiva: A leader, a great scholar, who had a close encounter with God and who believed that caring for each and every person is the essence of Torah and kedusha. This week we lost several precious Jewish people. May their memory be for a blessing by following in the footsteps of Rabbi Akiva and spreading kedusha by seeing and caring for others. Shabbat Shalom ~ Karen Miller Jackson