Tread Not Too Far, Yet Not Too Close
What we can learn from the death of Aaron's sons--the only narrative amidst the litany of laws in Leviticus
This subtle geometry is present in still other ways, this time circular. Just as the Israelites are the elect from among all the nations, so the priests are the elect from among the Israelites: They, the Levites, approach closest to God. So, concentric circles of holiness, with God in the middle, followed by the Levites, then the Children of Israel, is the functioning "theological map" underlying Levitical laws. "And you shall be a nation of priests," God commands His people when they are gathered at Mount Sinai. The priests are to the Children of Israel what the Children of Israel must be to the rest of the nations.
Moreover, this idea reflects the organization of space in the Temple in Jerusalem, with its graduating level of holiness: from the outer court to, eventually, the Holies of Holies, which only the Great Priest may enter-and then but once a year.
Staying within the lines of the law is crucial. Underlying the litany of God's laws is an anxiety that one may defile oneself, as well as an anxiety that one will strive to be too holy. Tread neither too far nor too close. Overstepping one's boundaries in either direction could be deserving of karet, separation. This is what God seems to be instructing Aaron when he reminds him of the death of his two sons.
The death of Nadab and Avihu (and later the deaths of Moses and Aaron) serve to remind us that there is nothing inherently holy about the Israelites or the priestly class: Following the law is what maintains their distinctiveness. This explains why the Levitical laws repeatedly include the strangers who "sojourn" among the Israelites as also subject to God's laws--they too can attain this level of holiness. When God excoriates Israel in the Book of Amos, which we also read this week, "Are you not to me like the children of Ethiopians, o children of Israel?" He is saying that the worst possible thing has occurred: Israel has allowed themselves to become like all others, and the borders of their world have ceased to matter.