Biblical Personalities: Nadav & Avihu II
The 1st of Nisan is the Yahrtzeit of Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aharon who died when they brought a “Strange Fire,” to the Mishkan.
Two threads of fire emerged from the Holy of Holies and split into four. Two entered the nostrils of this one and two entered the nostrils of that one, burned the soul, killing them while leaving the body intact (Sanhedrin 52a).
Looking at the plain meaning of the text, I believe that the verse reveals two separate since these two sons of Aaron were guilty of. On sin was of an intellectual nature, it was in their thinking and their attitude. Death was decreed for them for that sin. The other sin consisted of an action; offering an external fire which was not authorized for them to do. They offered the fire without offering incense at the same time. (Rabbeinu Bachya, Vayikra 16:1)
The two sins are represented by the two threads of fire, the two threads of fire split into two for each of the two people, punishing them for this sin of thought and intellect; “burned the sole,” and not for the sin of action, “while leaving the body intact.”
It was possible for their action to not have been a sin; had they brought their “strange fire,” to gather with an incense offering. It seems that it was the sin of thought that led them to their mistake in action. This would imply that the single fire that split into two, and then split again into four, was to teach us that each action is measured not only by the action but by the intent motivating the action. The action itself can be to, meaning good or bad, depending on the intent behind it.
This was an essential lesson that Israel had to learn as they began the actual service in the Mishkan: actions alone were not measured. The intent would shake the essence of every action, every act of service performed in the Mishkan.
Every midrash that deals with these two sons of Aaron describes to extraordinary human beings with the greatest of motivations, always striving to grasp more and reaching higher in their connection to God. Even such lofty goals must be carefully guided by intent.