P’ Acharei opens with a warning to Aharon that he may not enter the kodesh kodashim whenever he chooses. The danger is reinforced with a reminder that Aharon's two sons, Nadav and Avihu, entered without permission and were killed.
The Shem m’Shmuel asks: Nadav and Avihu were killed, as the Torah tells us earlier, “b’hakrivam aish zarah”, because they brought an improper offering of k'tores. Chazal in Midrash ascribe many other sins to Nadav and Avihu which may have led to or contributed to their downfall. Whatever their exact sin was, clearly it was more than simply entering into kodesh kodashim. How does their death serve as a warning that simply entering kodesh kodashim poses a danger?
To answer the question we need to have some perspective on how schar v’onesh works. In G-d’s court of judgment, guilt and merit are not calculated based only on the deeds done, but are calculated relative to who we are and what we are capable of. A Jew who grew up with no background but makes an effort to keep some mitzvos may receive tremendous reward, while a Jew who grew up immersed in a Torah society but chooses to only minimally practice his Judaism may receive little reward for those very same deeds. Same act, different people, different contexts, different reward and punishment.
Because justice is relative, the closer a person grows to G-d, the greater the potential for punishment, as more is expected of him/her. There is an arousal of the attribute of justice that accompanies every step upward that a person takes, as actions that a person on a lower level would not be held accountable for are now judged to be sins and require tshuvah and reflection.
Aharon’s sons were indeed guilty of offering an “aish zarah”, whatever exactly that sin was. But these blemishes of sin were slight and would have been undetectable to us. Recall that Moshe told Aharon that Nadav and Avihu were even greater in stature than they were! Why then did Hashem punish Nadav and Avihu so harshly? Why did the anger of Hashem toward Nadav and Avihu which had been held in abeyance since Mattan Torah (according to one Midrashic view) suddenly spill over into Divine punishment? The answer is “b’korvasam lifnei Hashem” – because they drew closer to G-d. To enter the kodesh kodashim, the holiest spot on earth, demanded a level of purity that did not tolerate the slight blemishes of soul. It’s not the sin of “aish zarah” alone which killed Nadav v’Avihu, but it was the context in which the sin took place. In the context of kodesh kodashin, the ever so slight defects of soul that these giants might have had within them were suddenly judged as glaring errors of judgment. Because the context of kodesh kodashim is so special, it must be reserved for use only on the the most special moment of the year, as Aharon was told.
Now we can understand, says the Shem m’Shmuel, why the Jewish people needed a korban Pesach to merit escaping the danger of the final makkas bechoros. I would add that now we understand why it takes so much work and preparation before we can have a Yom Tov of Pesach. It’s not just about cleaning the cupboard, but it’s about cleaning the soul. What may have been fine and good for our souls before Peach simply does not cut it in the context of the tremendous aliya ruchanit of the chag. If you want to feel the spiritual energy inherent in matzah and enter the kodesh kodashim of the pnimiyus of the chag, you can’t just waltz into Yom Tov with the baggage of a whole year! There is a din v’sheshbon that comes along with aliya, a struggle a person needs to undergo to integrate the ohr of the chag into their total personality in a way that transforms the past and provides direction for the future. Without that preparation, we risk entering the kodesh kodashim and being found wanting.
Hope everyone has a chag kasher v’sameyach and we all merit experiencing the cheirus and aliya of Yom Tov!