“And G-d spoke to Moshe after the death of the two children of Aharon when they came close before G-d and they died” (16:1). The Torah then proceeds with the elaborate details of the special Yom Kippur service.
What is most unclear is why the Torah mentions the death of the Nadav and Avihu as the prelude to the Yom Kippur service. Mention of their deaths at this point is especially strange as their death took place more than six months earlier, on the first of Nissan during the celebration upon the dedication of the Mishkan. Much had transpired between their death and the Yom Kippur service. The Torah, after their deaths, spends many verses detailing the laws of kashrut, purity and impurity, tzara’at, and the laws of niddah. Why bring this up here, seemingly out of nowhere?
The mentioning of their deaths at this particular point seems to indicate that somehow their deaths were the first stage of the Yom Kippur service. And this is how our Sages seem to interpret it. “Just as Yom Kippur atones, so too does the death of the righteous” is their cryptic analysis. While this concept may sound Christian, it is, if understood and applied properly, very Jewish indeed.
One cannot attain automatic atonement through the death of another. Rather the inevitability of death is a great motivator. Realizing that time is short, we are determined to act before it is too late. While living with the cloud of death hovering over us can be unbearable, blessed are those who, subconsciously, are constantly aware of their mortality. This knowledge is what motivates them to strive to leave a legacy, to have children, or to leave large amounts of money for charity.
It is unfortunate, though very understandable, that we often live our lives as if we will be here forever. We tend to focus on transitory matters, ignoring (or leaving for much later, or never), the larger questions of life. Such an attitude is generally necessary for “normal” living. The key is to find the balance between these two extremes, between obsession with our mortality and forgetfulness of it.
When we are actually faced with death we tend to recognize what is truly important and what is little more than a façade. The death of any person should motivate us towards teshuva. This process of teshuva is one of the functions of shiva. During shiva the frailty of life stares us in the face, urging us to make the most of our days.
When a great person dies, not only his family, but the entire nation should be motivated to teshuva. The custom of reciting Yizkor, originally done only on Yom Kippur, is rooted in this Biblical concept of death leading to teshuva. Interestingly, we recite Yizkor immediately prior to Mussaf; Mussaf replicates the Temple service that led to atonement.
Being in the presence of greatness is a most uplifting experience. The goal of every Jew should be to feel the presence of G-d, the Ultimate in greatness. Yet, such attempts are not without risk. In their attempt to come closer to G-d Nadav and Avihu lost their lives. Yet the deaths of those who stumble must not deter us from attempting to reach higher. Le'havdil, people continue to climb Mount Everest despite the fact that people die on the mountain every year.
The deaths of Nadav and Avihu may have caused some to question whether seeking spiritual heights is worth the struggle. Why work hard to come closer to G-d only to have G-d declare, as He did after the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, “I will be sanctified through those closest to me”? Yet as we seek complete atonement on Yom Kippur we must be willing to try, despite the risks.
Before the Torah details the Yom Kippur service we are reminded of the tragic deaths of two of Aharon's sons. Their yearning for G-d is something we must emulate. If we do so, their deaths will truly atone for us.