This week’s Torah reading takes place on the eighth day of the preperations for the dedication of the Tabernacle. This is a culmination of the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, and the building of the Tabernacle. All of the special sacrifices are being offered on this holy day, which takes place on Rosh Chodesh Nissan, nearly one year since the Exodus. Once all of the sacrifices are in place, a Heavenly fire comes and consumes the sacrifices on the altar, which the people exult in praise. But then, tragedy strikes:
“And the sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, took their fire-pans, and they placed them fire, and placed on it incense, and they offered before the L-rd a strange fire, which He did not command them. And a fire went out from before the L-rd and consumed them, and they died before the L-rd” (Exodus 10, 1-2).
The Torah doesn’t specify what Nadav and Avihu’s sin was that they were killed on such an auspicious occasion – only that they brought a “strange fire” that they were not commanded. Of the many explanations given, Rashi says that they had entered the sanctuary after they had drunk wine. The evidence for this is that the following paragraph in the Torah gives the prohibition for Cohanim to drink wine before doing their Temple service. But what does this have to do with the “strange fire”?
The Kli Yakar writes that according to the above explanation that their sin was having drunk wine beforehand, this “strange fire” is wine burning within them like a fire, like it says, “Woe to them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink; that continue until night, till wine inflames them.” And even though the commandment not to drink wine before entering the Sanctuary was not given until afterwards, they should have known better. They should have known that there is a proper way to appear before the King, and it is not by being drunk.