In a day and age where a lot of moral and cultural stock is being placed in a particular Supreme Court decision vis-à-vis marriage, Vayikra chapters 18 and 20 are once again being dragged to center stage. But it might be no accident that this weeks’s double parsha—where the Torah’s sexual moralities are clearly legislated—begins with what might be death from non-marriage.
The deaths of Nadav and Avihu are attributable to—among a myriad of other factors—their unwillingness to marry because there was no one on their level. This can be compared to Chizkiyahu HaMelech’s near-death experience because of his unwillingness to amrry at all.
Both used their spiritual standing for some form of illegitimate avoidance of relationships—Nadav and Avihu, because it would affect their standing as the next Kohanim Gedolim [and they were already restricted]; and Chizkiyahu, because his ruach hakodesh showed him Menashe’s future malevolence. [Why didn’t G-d show him Yoshiyahu instead of saying “It’s none of your business”? G-d was doubling down, as it were: bein letova, bein lera'a, it wasn’t Chizkiyahu’s business.]
But even in that case there is a qualitative difference between the two.
On the one hand, the King was worried that he would be the cause of the eventual destruction and exile to befall the Jews because of Menashe’s sins [indeed, its hinted that the decree became irrevocable during that time], and he thought he was actually performing a public service; while Nadav and Avihu’s reluctance to wed may have been less of an issue of tzarchei tzibbur than their own self-assessments of their station and—when you look at the other attitudinal indicators in Rashi and the midrashim about what led to their deaths at the hands of Heaven—that they theoretically concluded that their potential mates’ fitness absolutely had to match their stations and responsibilities.
So why were Nadav and Avihu called “krovai” and worthy of the posthumous adulation the Torah accorded them, while Chizkiyahu was threatened with oblivion in the afterlife?
For one thing, the reluctance to marry was one among many spiritual imbalances in Nadav and Avihu’s case, and not the ultimate proximate trigger of their deaths. Additionally, there’s no indication that they refused to marry EVER; it was that they hadn’t married YET, and the exegesis provides the explanation. The Divine response to Chizkiyahu’s absolute refusal to marry and produce progeny might have been as draconian as Chizkiyahu’s decision.
Is this supposed to be a lesson to—for lack of a better term—“upper west siders” and ostensible perpetual singlehood? It’s possible that it might serve as a teachable moment about certain attitudes in the singles community that might need adjustment; however, it does not indicate for any kind of support for the notion that we are undergoing a “shidduch crisis” deserving of crisis responses. Furthermore, it’s the adjustments that are needed that essentially prove that this matza is nowhere near crisis mode.
One attitude that might need adjustment is willingness to “date”—even long term—someone one would never marry. This might be a step up from the number of places in Shas where the gemara mentions tav lemetav tan du—that women will marry beneath their station just to have a man in the house, but said “settling” is almost accompanied by “vechulan meznaos vetolos beba’alehen”— some extracurricular activity and a concomitant pointing back to their husbands as the fathers of the resultant offspring. However, in a day and age where men don’t have the polygamy option, one would see this kind of behavior way more from the male side, as exemplified by the frum unmarried male’s pursuit of self-contradictory goals so brilliantly described by R’ Arnie Singer here.
Does this mean that people should get married even if they know there’s a mismatch in stations and that adultery and bastardy is the inevitable result? Ironically, the gemara might have found the “vechulan mezanos” state of affairs [!] preferable to the one indicated in Kesuvos 82b, where the perceived inequities in the text of the kesuva led to a full-blown actual “shidduch crisis”: as Rashi explicitly states, women would not get married at all until Chazal acted twice to adjust the terms of the kesuva so the women and their families wouldn’t end up cheated out of marital assets.
So we see a few things from this: one, “settling” is not always the best idea, particularly when there really isn’t “settling”; two, sometimes the system itself is the problem and needs fixing; and three, while one can look askance as “frumsplaining” one’s reluctance to marry, particularly when the “’splaining” doesn’t match the “frum”, sometimes there are salient reasons to hold off.
And that may be indicated by the difference between what conventional wisdom holds “upper west siders” are doing and what Nadav and Avihu and Chizkiyahu were doing. The kind of influence those eminences had on klal yisrael could very well have been policy setters—maybe their rationalizations for delaying or eschewing marriages might have been salient [though we way they ultimately were not], but the masses would have rationalized similar or analogous destructive behavior without the same level of justification [as we see from the tav lemetav and “shidduch crisis” gemaras]. Such a thing HAD happened before, when Amram divorced Yocheved after the Pharaonic decrees and EVERYONE ELSE followed.
But those are the exceptions that prove the rule. Conventional wisdom dictates that singles today “aren’t getting married”. Whether a woman would actually say “tav lemetav” beferush nowadays is a different matter; we are certainly not at the level of “lo rotzos lihinasei”. And we see that when there was a real “shidduch crisis”—as in Kesuvos 82b—no one invoked Nadav, Avihu, or Chizkiyahu to fix it.
Instead—they fixed it.