By: Rabbi Avrohom Adler
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It is written in Parshas Yisro [24, 9 – 11]: And Moshe and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel ascended, and they perceived the G-d of Israel etc., and they perceived G-d, and they ate and drank.
Rashi cites the Medrash Tanchuma: They gazed and peered and because of this were doomed to die, but the Holy One, blessed be He, did not want to disturb the rejoicing of this moment of the giving of the Torah. So He waited to kill Nadav and Avihu until the day of the dedication of the Mishkan, and for the elders until the following incident: And the people were as if seeking complaints… and a fire of Hashem broke out against them and devoured at the edge (the leaders) of the camp.
We can ask: What happened by the sin of the complainers that precisely then, Hashem chose to destroy the elders?
The Chasam Sofer answers based upon our Gemora: Rav Pappa said: An asmachta is sometimes binding and sometimes not. If the lender found the borrower (on the date that the loan was due) drinking beer (at a tavern), it is binding (for he clearly does not care about the forfeiture of his field); if, however, he was trying to procure money, it is not binding.
Rav Acha from Difti asked Ravina: Perhaps he was drinking to dismiss his anxiety (that he could not pay the loan), or perhaps someone else had assured him of the money (to repay it)?
Similarly, it can be said regarding the Jewish people’s acceptance of the torah when they said, “we will do and we will listen.” Seemingly, this should be regarded as an asmachta, and therefore not binding – they were coerced into saying that by the fact that the mountain was placed on top of them.
Accordingly, we can say as follows: when the elders ate and drank, this was a demonstration that they were completely at ease with their decision; they were displaying happiness and joy with the acceptance of the Torah, and that it wasn’t an asmachta at all. So, on the contrary – they were acting properly, and not deserving of a punishment at all! However, by the sin of the complainers, it is written: They travelled from the mountain of Hashem. Rashi explains that they ran away like a child runs when he is leaving school. They were fleeing in order not to receive any more laws. This would then indicate that when they were eating and drinking by Mount Sinai, it was not a sign of happiness, but rather, they were dispelling their anxiety. This was a cause for their demise, and that is why Hashem waited until the time that they demonstrated what their true intentions were.