"And Aaron remained silent" (10:3). The Jewish people had just completed celebrating the dedication of the mishkan . The festivities were elaborate, and the mood celebratory. Suddenly tragedy struck. The two eldest sons of Aaron were killed as they offered a sacrifice to G-d. Why? The Torah does not fully explain. The commentaries struggle as they search for evidence of some horrific sin that they must have committed. Moshe, trying to comfort his older brother, said "This is exactly what G-d meant when he said 'I will be sanctified among those close to me'".
Moshe was highlighting the notion that those like Nadav and Avihu, who manage to reach higher levels of religiosity, who became leaders, must be judged by higher and harsher standards. (Ironically, Moshe himself was severely punished for a seemingly trivial offence). While the Torah does not tell us directly what they did wrong, it does mention that the sacrifice they offered was not explicitly commanded by G-d.
Nadav and Avihu were bringing a sacrifice to G-d in their attempt to come closer to the Divine Presence. Their motivation was pure, their hearts were in the right place, their goals noble, but something was missing: permission from G-d to bring such a sacrifice. Intense religious feelings must also be guided by the discipline of halacha . Striving to reach G-d is a wonderful endeavour, but it is not enough. Nadav and Avihu, righteous as they were, and as well-meaning as they were, acted beyond the objective standards of halacha . While for others this may be excusable, for the priests of the temple, punishment was swift and severe.
Many modern people expect the observance of Judaism to be fulfilling, spiritually uplifting, and meaningful to them. And they're right; it should be fulfilling, spiritually uplifting, and meaningful. But what happens when it isn't? If one makes one's emotions the key test of observance, one has misunderstood the very essence of Halacha and Judaism. Judaism is G-d-centred, not man-centred. By making observance dependent on our own personal, subjective feelings, we have shifted the focus from worshipping G-d to worshipping ourselves. We must, to paraphrase President Kennedy, ask not what Judaism can do for us but what can we do for Judaism.
Mitzvot must be observed even when they offer no inspiration to us, or even seem devoid of meaning. Kashrut must be adhered to, even if its rules seem strange. A menstruating woman must go to mikvah (at the proper time), regardless of whether it is spiritually uplifting. It is the action which is crucial; our feelings are secondary. This is a difficult concept for modern man, who is so self-centred, to accept, but it is a concept that is the core of the truly G-d-fearing person. It is this concept that helps explain why, with few exceptions, a mitzvah performed without kavanah (proper devotion), while less than optimal, is acceptable. You have, after all, performed G-d's will.
This problem of "using" the mitzvoth by placing them in the framework of our feelings afflicts us all to a certain degree. Many use it to justify non-observance of mitzvoth. The many chukim of the Torah- shatnez, kashrut , not shaving with a razor-are meant to teach us that we must observe even those mitzvoth that we do not understand and which do not "speak to us". Even mitzvoth we do observe can be misused. Unfortunately, people often "use" observance of mitzvoth, performing them not out of a desire to serve G-d, but to be accepted socially, to differentiate themselves from others, or to appear pious.
Our rabbis teach us that "one should always perform a mitzvah even if one's motivation is not pure, as eventually one will have the proper motivation". The commentaries point out that when setting out on the path of observance, it is unrealistic, even impossible, to be purely motivated. We "always" perform mitzvoth without the proper motivation. It is only through the performance of mitzvoth, by seeing and experiencing the beauty of the mitzvah, that we can hope to become properly motivated. Incomplete motivation is acceptable, even commendable, if we are performing the basic mitzvoth of the Torah. But when emotion serves as a basis for determining whether to observe the mitzvoth, or as a method of denigrating others, we have crossed the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. Let us observe all the mitzvoth of the Torah, and let us pray that as we observe the mitzvoth, our lives will be enriched as the mitzvoth uplift us and bring us closer to G-d and man.