When tragedy strikes there is a tendency to search for some rational explanation as we subsequently attempt to find meaning and a degree of comfort, however inadequate. Tragic events often afford an opportunity to learn from what transpired, thereby creating something positive, and possibly helping to prevent further tragedies.
The attempt to find some rationale for what is almost by definition irrational dates back to Biblical times. While today, we search for meaning in the aftermath of events, one could argue that the Biblical tragedies are recorded—and perhaps even occurred—in order to teach us important lessons.
There is perhaps no greater Biblical tragedy than the deaths of Aharon's two sons, Nadav and Avihu. Two righteous, young, potential future leaders from the best of families were killed in the Temple itself, at the very moment the people of Israel were celebrating the dedication of the Mishkan. Our commentaries search, almost in vain, to make some sense of this. Perhaps they had been drinking, maybe they secretly harboured plans to take over the leadership from Moshe and Aharon, perhaps something was wrong in the sacrifice they offered to G-d.
None of these reasons seem satisfactory. The multiplicity of explanations demonstrates the difficulty in pointing to any particular sin they might have committed. Moshe even assures Aharon that G-d told him that Nadav and Avihu were those closest unto G-d, "bkorvai akadesh", (Vayikra 10:3) G-d is sanctified by those closest to Him.
Their sin, the Meshech Chochma explains, was a very minor one indeed and surely not worthy of death. Nonetheless, in the aftermath of sin of the golden calf, the punishment of death was vital. Having committed idolatry and escaped serious punishment, the Jewish people were liable to think that G-d would forgive anything and everything. G-d therefore had to assert the seriousness of sin by punishing a very minor miscue. The Jewish people had to learn that there is no sin without judgment. While this might seem unfair to Nadav and Avihu—and it is—G-d has His own way of thinking; "My thoughts and not their thoughts" (Yishayahu 55:8). Such is the price of leadership; leaders often must bear the guilt of the people. As it was the sin of the Jewish people that caused the death of Nadav and Avihu, "the entire house of Israel will mourn for the ones whom G-d burned" (Vayikra 10:6).
Parshat Shmini often coincides with parshat Parah, where we read about the strange ritual that must be followed when one comes in contact with death. This ritual was initially to be carried out by Elazar, the younger brother of Nadav and Avihu. Even a small deviation from the prescribed ritual renders the process invalid, and thus impure. This ultimate chok, incomprehensible law, teaches that we must observe every last minute detail of Jewish law whether we understand it or not. While in practice this is impossible, it must remain our goal.
Our Sages ascribed many of our historical tragedies to particular sins of the Jewish people. The Rabbis were not necessarily offering historical analysis, but rather moral guidance in a time of great need. They wanted to ensure that tragedy could be transformed into an opportunity for growth, both for those directly affected and even more so for us, living many years after the events. Our Sages understood that societies crumble from within; if the Temple lay in ruins, the Jewish people would need to look inward. Sina'at chinam, needless hatred and apathy, would have to be replaced with ahavat chinam, love for no particular reason, thereby creating the necessary conditions for the rebirth of the nation.
The tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu and so many others throughout our long history is a chok that defies comprehension. While we may not understand why, we must ask, to what purpose? Doing so may allow us to derive appropriate lessons that can be applied to our lives.