Parshas Shemini gives the account of the tragic deaths of Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu. At the climax of the inauguration of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), the two men entered the Holy of Holies and brought their own incense without having been commanded to do so. After they entered, a fire came forth and consumed them. Chazal offer several explanations as to the exact nature of their mistake: The Chasam Sofer brings a Medrash that offers three reasons as to their sin: They made a decision without consulting their teacher, Moshe Rabbeinu; they entered the Mishkan intoxicated with wine; they did not get married or have children. These three reasons seem to be totally unrelated to each other however the Chasam Sofer explains that they all emanate from the same source.
He writes that the defining sin of the three was their choice to not get married and the consequence that they had no children. He explains that there are many Mitzvos that involve the necessity to ascribe honor to certain people, and, lehavdil, to HaShem. These include the Mitzvos to honor and fear one’s parents and teachers, and the various laws with regard to one’s conduct in the Mishkan. Having one’s own children plays a key role in helping a person to develop a far greater recognition of the importance of being respected. He experiences first-hand, the unpleasantness of not being properly respected by his children. This helps him internalize how important it is for him to honor his parents, teachers, and, most importantly, HaShem.
Nadav and Avihu chose not to get married and consequently remained childless. This hindered them from developing the proper appreciation of the need to honor others. As a result, they stumbled in other areas relating to honor: They failed to consult with their teacher Moshe, indicating a lacking in giving sufficient honor to their teacher. Likewise, their entering the Mishkan whilst intoxicated with wine indicated a failing in their honor for the Divine Presence that dwelled there. Thus, according to the Chasam Sofer, the defining sin of Nadav and Avihu was their reluctance to have children – this was responsible for their failing in the area of giving kavod (honor).
It is possible to add that some of the other sins enumerated in the Rabbinical sources also originate from a lacking in the trait of kavod. In Parshas Mishpatim, we are told Moshe, Nadav and Avihu, along with the seveny Elders, witnessed a sublime prophecy. The Torah writes that Nadav and Avihu, and the Elders “gazed at G-d, yet they ate and drank”. The Medrash Tanchuma, quoted by Rashi, says that Nadav and Avihu and the elders sinned grievously by eating and drinking whilst gazing at the sacred vision. They deserved to die at that moment, but G-d did not punish them right then, in order not to mar the joy of the giving of the Torah. Rather, their punishment was deferred till a later date. Again, it is clear that the key fault here was the lack of sufficient fear and honor for the Divine Presence.
Moreover, the most explicit reason for their sin is the Torah’s words that they offered up the incense even though they were never commanded to. The commentaries explain that in their great love for HaShem, they were inspired to enter the Mishkan themselves. Despite their lofty intentions, performing a service without being instructed to do so, also seems to constitute a lack of sufficient fear and honor for HaShem.
We have seen from the explanation of the Chasam Sofer that the failure of Nadav and Avihu to have children resulted in the various sins that Chazal find them culpable of, and that the root of these sins was a failing to give proper honor. This explanation sheds light on an important principle in Torah thought with regard to inter-personal relationships. In the secular world, it is common to view relationships from the perspective of, “what can I get out of this relationship”, whether it applies to marriage, child rearing, or friendships. In this way, the goal of the relationship is essentially selfish, and it perhaps explains why the institution of marriage and the parent-child relationships have been so damaged in recent generations. If a person’s goals in a relationship are primarily selfish, then his desires and hopes will inevitably clash with those of his partner or child, who has similarly selfish desires. Moreover, if a person perceives that getting married or having children will hinder his life enjoyment then he will refrain from them in his vain quest for pleasure and comfort.
The Chasam Sofer teaches us that one of the main purposes of having children is to enable a person to grow in ways that he would otherwise be unable to. The same applies to marriage and all other relationships. The Torah outlook is that a person should approach his relationships from a selfless point of view – focusing on how he can help the other members of the relationship, and how he can grow from the relationship into a better person. As in all aspects of life, our relationships are there to help us grow closer to HaShem, therefore it is essential that we strive to develop such relationships even if they may reduce our comfort level, because we understand that they will enable us to become complete people in a way that Nadav and Avihu never merited.