The Torah records the tragic and untimely death of Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu. According to the Torah’s description, their death was the result of either entering the Holy of Holies unauthorized, which was forbidden or bringing an unbidden incense or fire offering.
In a deeper sense the Ohr Hachaim explains that Nadav and Avihu’s deaths were the result of their extreme desire to unite with God. They initiated the departure of their souls from their bodies. This idea, explains Ohr Hachaim, is learned from the description the Torah gives for their death, stating that they died because they “came close” to God. But how could coming close to God, which is, by definition, a good thing, cause their deaths? The answer is that they came “too” close to remain alive.
This is called the “death of a kiss,” which is reserved for the holiest from among the righteous. This was the death of Moshe and Aharon as well, except that Nadav and Avihu initiated the departure of their souls prematurely because they no longer wished to live a restricted physical life which is distanced from God. While Moshe and Aharon, understanding that the ultimate purpose of life is to channel Godliness into the physical world which can only be done together with the body, waited for God to come and take their souls after they had finished their work in the world.
The sons of Aharon did not die because they did a terrible sin; in fact, they were among the most righteous and holy of the Jewish People. Although their intentions were praiseworthy, their subtle mistake was that they lacked the proper balance between the longing to be with God and the commitment to living a holy life on earth.
This is expressed in the different reasons given by the sages for their death; a) they entered the Beit Ha Mikdash while intoxicated; b) they were never married. Ultimately, the highest levels of spirituality and holiness can only be attained through the union of body and soul through the mitzvot.
From the above we can better understand the true purpose of spirituality from a Jewish perspective. Spirituality is not about escape, as taught in some other religions. Escaping from this world defeats the purpose for which we were created. Judaism is not about getting high on spirituality.
In fact it is explained in the writings of Kabbalah that one undergoes a spiritual ascent during prayer, however, one of the main functions of this ascent is to draw down Divine flow and benefit to this physical and lowest of all worlds.
Perhaps it is for this reason that we are instructed to look down when we pray the Shemoneh Esrei, as if to say, “Don’t forget what you are praying for.” Accordingly, one’s great longing to ascend above must be balanced with a sense of responsibility, guaranteeing that the overall focus will be to return and bring benefit to the world.
By Rabbi Yitzchak Botton