וידבר ה' אל משה אחרי מות שני בני אהרן בקרבתם לפני ה' וימותו.
“And Hashem spoke to Moshe after the death of the two sons of Aharon who approached before Hashem and died.” (Vayikra 16:1)
There is an interesting Midrash on this verse: “At the time when the two fiery rods went into Nadav and Avihu’s nostrils, the heavenly angels asked: ‘If so, why did You split the sea for them?’ The fiery angels replied: ‘Return us, Hashem, to You and we will do tshuva, renew our days as of old.’ And others say [that the fiery angels replied]: ‘Blessed is the honorable Name of His kingdom forever.’”
What is the meaning of this perplexing Midrash? Why are the angels questioning the splitting of the sea, and what is the connection between Nadav and Avihu’s death and Kriyas Yam Suf? And how do the fiery angels respond to this question?
The Arvei Nachal gives some insight into this topic, based on Tosefos’ explanation of what happened during the splitting of the sea. When the Jewish people crossed the Red Sea, they did not go across to the other side of the sea. Instead, the pathway through the dry seabed was shaped like a half-circle, bringing the Jewish people back to the side from where they entered the sea, only somewhat further down.
This raises a very difficult question: why did Hashem split the sea if the Jewish people didn’t even cross the sea to the other side? If the Jews would have had to get across to the other shore, then the spectacular miracle of splitting the sea would have served a purpose. But in order to continue forward in the desert, Hashem could have protected them on their regular route. When the Jewish people stood before the sea, they were afraid to go into the desert, and so Hashem split the sea for them. But if they ended up in the desert anyway, why did Hashem perform this miracle for them when He could have sent them straight into the desert?
In a way, the question itself gives us the answer. Hashem did not perform the miracle so that the Jewish people should cross the sea. Hashem had promised to redeem the Jewish people from Egypt and bring them to Land of Israel. By splitting the sea at the beginning of their voyage, Hashem demonstrated His great power, and also His great love for His children. All of the miracles He performed were for the purpose of bringing them to the Promised Land.
Now we can understand what had been troubling the angels after the death of Nadav and Avihu. Since they died in the desert and never entered the Land of Israel, why was the sea split for them? If the purpose of splitting the sea would have been to bring the Jewish people over to the other side, then that purpose would already have been accomplished. However, since the purpose of the splitting of the sea was to bring the people to Israel, the miracle seems to have been performed in vain. After all, Nadav and Avihu (and most of the people of their generation) never reached Israel. If so, why was the miracle performed for them, when they could have gone straight into the wilderness in the first place?
Now that we understand the question, we can understand the response of the fiery angels. According to the Midrash, they replied: “Return us, Hashem, to You.” The meaning of this is that the splitting of the sea shows us the power of tshuva - repentance. If a person finds himself in a raging sea of sin from which he cannot extricate himself, he should remember that he is never lost. Hashem can split the sea for him, pull him out of the raging waters and bring him close to Him. The same applies to any problem he may face in his life, such as an illness or other serious crisis. Hashem can turn around any situation and instantly make things better, no matter how dreadful the situation seems to be. Just as He split the sea and opened up a way for the Jewish people to cross, so too Hashem helps us out of our personal problems, be they physical or spiritual difficulties.
As we’ve mentioned before, when walking through the sea, the Jewish people returned to the side from where they started out instead of crossing over to the other side. This too symbolizes tshuva. Even if a person does not manage to reach higher through his tshuva but ends off at the same place from where he started out, he has still done tshuva. The main thing is that he has been saved from the depths of sin and depravity and reached “dry land.”
The fiery angels are saying something of great importance. Nadav and Avihu were supremely righteous and did not suffer in death. Their death served as atonement for the Jewish people and brought everyone to fear Hashem. It made others be in awe of Hashem’s judgment and brought them to repentance. Therefore, say the fiery angels, it was worthwhile to split the sea for Nadav and Avihu even though they never entered Eretz Yisroel. After all, the purpose of splitting the sea was to demonstrate Hashem’s power and bring everyone to be in awe of Him, and this very purpose was also achieved through the untimely death of Aharon’s sons.
According to others, the fiery angels responded by saying: “Blessed is the honorable Name of His kingdom forever.” They were saying that while Nadav and Avihu’s death did indeed inspire people to repent, it was a short-term inspiration. On the other hand, the splitting of the sea was a spectacular miracle and its effect on the world is everlasting. We remember this wondrous event and praise Hashem for it until this day. If so, say the fiery angels, it was worthwhile to split the sea because it achieved the purpose for which it was performed.
There are two ways in which a person can be brought to repentance. One way is by evoking fear in his heart, and the other way is by performing wondrous miracles that demonstrate the power of Hashem’s kindness. The splitting of the sea brought honor to Hashem’s name forever. On the other hand, the demise of Nadav and Avihu only inspired people to repent for the moment. Therefore, we pray to Hashem that He should not use this method to inspire us to do tshuva, but rather he should bring us closer to Him by showing us His great kindness and performing miracles for us. If Hashem will do so in His great kindness, then all people will be helped with whatever they need; those who need a refuah will merit a full recovery and those who need a nechama will be fully consoled. Everyone will be blessed with plentiful parnassa, and those who need shidduchim will find their life-partners. These two things are likened to the splitting of the sea, and when Hashem helps us in these situations He brings us closer to Him, just as the splitting of the sea brought us closer to the Al-mighty. May Hashem enable us to finally greet Moshiach, speedily in our days, Amen.