When the inauguration service for the priests was finished, “the glory of the Eternal was shown to the whole nation” (Leviticus 9:23). Three verses later, with the deaths of Nadav and Avihu (10:2), the nation had a revelation of a different kind.
Previously, Jews had defied God out of fear (e.g., of Pharoah in Exodus 14:11–12) or physical desires (e.g., longing for meat in Exodus 16:3) or theological error (the golden calf incident in Exodus 32:1–3). But nobody has accused Nadav and Avihu of these failings. According to Rabbi Eliezer (cited in Rashi s.v. Leviticus 10:2), their only mistake was to make a halakhic decision in the presence of their teacher; according to Rabbi Ishmael (ibid.), the mistake was to enter the Tabernacle after drinking wine. So they had the best of intentions, but because they made some careless mistake about how to serve God, they were toast. Moses and Aaron didn’t even have the chance to intercede on their behalf before they knew what had happened. Against this background, the dialogue in the rest of Leviticus 10 takes on a more anxious tone.
Furthermore, when laying down the law about drinking wine before services, God says it is “to distinguish [lehavdil] between sacred and secular, and between ritually unfit and the fit” (Leviticus 10:10). After the catalog of kosher and non-kosher animals, that word appears again: “to distinguish [lehavdil] between the ritually unfit and the fit, between the beasts that may be eaten and the beasts that are not to be eaten” (11:47). We’ve seen this root used before: e.g., the separation between heaven and earth in Genesis 1:6 is referred to as a mavdil. But this is the first time the term is used to describe something that human beings have to do in their daily life.
In many aspects of our life, we honor God by imitating Him. As these verses show, one way that we imitate Him is by using our intellect to distinguish between what is and is not permitted. How great is the reward for doing this job well? Just look at how severely Nadav and Avihu were punished were doing it poorly.