This Week's Torah Portion: Aaron's Sons Are Consumed at the Altar (Part 25)

Dëvar Torah — Parashath Shëmini (Leviticus IX, 1-XI, 47)

It was the eighth day — the culmination of the yëmei hamillu’im, the installation of Aharon and his sons as kohanim, dedicated to Divine service in the newly erected Mishkan.

Accordingly, in obedience to G-d’s instructions as relayed by his brother and teacher Moshe, Aharon arrayed the qorban ‘ola (“Ascent offering”) and the hind-quarter fats of the qorban chattath (“sin offering”) on the altar. As Aharon and Moshe came out to bless the assembled bënei Yisra’él, the altar miraculously burst into flame, the sacrifices were consumed, and the assembled people overawed.

 Then it happened:

And the son of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, took each his censer; and they put fire into them, and they placed upon [the fire] incense, and they offered before Ha-Shem a strange fire which He had not commanded them [ésh zara asher lo tzivva otham]. And a fire came out from before Ha-Shem and consumed them, and they died before Ha-Shem (X, 1-2).

 Moshe, trying to comfort Aharon over this tragedy which had unfolded before his very eyes, told him:

This is what Ha-Shem said, I shall be sanctified by those close to Me, and before all of the people I shall be glorified (ibid., 3).

Rashi quotes the midrash (Vayiqra Rabba XII, 2) to detail Moshe’s words further:

Aharon my brother, I knew that the Mishkan would be sanctified through Ha-Shem’s intimates, and I had thought it would be through me or through you. Now I see that they [Nadav and Avihu] were greater than me or you.

Nor were these empty words on Moshe’s part. The Talmud (Zëvachim 115b) tells us that Aharon was fully aware of his sons’ greatness:

And since Aharon know that his sons were intimates of G-d, he was silent and received a reward; as it is said, “And Aharon was silent” (ibid., 3).

Aharon’s fundamental integrity would not have allowed him to accept Moshe’s words of comfort had he not known in his heart that they were true.

The Zohar (III, 56b) goes ever farther in describing the righteousness of Nadav and Avihu:

Every time tzaddiqim (“just, righteous people”) pass from the world, judgment passes from the world, and the death of tzaddiqim atones for the sins of the generation; and for this reason, we read the parasha of Nadav and Avihu on Yom Kippur, to constitute an atonement for the sins of Israel. … And it is said that Nadav and Avihu alone were equivalent to the seventy members of the Sanhedrin who served Moshe, and because of this their death atones for Israel. … for there were none like these two in Israel.

Heady praise, indeed. The implication is that Nadav and Avihu not only atoned for the sins of their generation, but in some way continue to atone for the sins of future generations!

Yet the plain sense of the text is that their death was the consequence of their having brought ésh zara asher lo tzivva otham before Ha-Shem and the Talmud and midrash, in trying to elucidate this “strange fire,” lay a long list of transgressions at the door of our two exemplary tzaddiqim. That they issued halachic rulings in the presence of their teacher, Moshe; that they entered the Holy of Holies illicitly; that they had been drunk and improperly attired during their service, or that they had neglected the commandment to marry and sire children (cf. ‘Eiruvin 67a and Midrash Tanchuma, parashath Acharei Moth 6).

Finally, in Sanhedrin 52a, it is recorded that they whispered impatiently behind Moshe’s and Aharon’s backs:

When will these two old men die, and I and you will lead the generation! 

How do we reconcile their reputed righteousness, greater than that of Aharon and Moshe on the one hand, with this catalogue of accusations published in equally valid Torah sources on the other?

The midrash which records their neglect of being fruitful and multiplying also records their line of reasoning, which provides a clue to the solution of this conundrum: “Our father’s brother [Moshe] is the king,” they thought, “and our father is kohén gadol [“high priest”)]. Our mother’s brother is a prince [Aharon’s wife was Elisheva, sister of ‘Amminadav, prince of Yëhuda], and we are kohanim; what woman is fit for us?”

Another hint is provided us by Torath Kohanim, which notes the unusual word order of X, 1: “Bënei Aharon Nadav va’Avihu … ”, where the patronymic normally follows the proper name: “Nadav va’Avihu bënei Aharon … “. It concludes that the inversion indicates “that they had behaved as if they were not his sons.”

Aharon’s watchwords were ‘anava (“humility”) and hchna’a (“submission” to Ha-Shem’s will). When Ha-Shem told Moshe that he would dictate to Aharon what to say and would be his leader, Aharon was saméach bëlibbo, “happy in his heart,” despite the fact that he was the older brother and a scholar and prophet in his own right. Neither written nor oral Torah sources record there was ever a hint of jealousy or resentment at Moshe’s elevation over him (cf. Exodus IV, 14-16, Rashi ad loc.)

Nadav and Avihu, despite their tremendous intellectual and spiritual gifts, such that they were in every way qualified to be the successors of their father and uncle, failed in that they allowed their exceptional abilities to go to their heads and inflate their egos. The common denominator underlying all of the transgressions listed by the Talmud and midrash is arrogance, derived from insufficient ‘anava and hachna’a; in what should have been their finest moment, they acted as if they were not their father’s sons.

“I shall be sanctified by those close to Me, and before all of the people I shall be glorified.” The world’s attitude towards people of exceptional talent and ability holds them to a looser, more indulgent standard than that of “ordinary” people. We are all painfully aware of the notion that great artists, composers, musicians, heads of state cannot be held to the constraints of “petit bourgeois morality”; that their intellectual and spiritual gifts grant them license to be “as bad as they want to be” (to paraphrase the title of a sports star’s autobiography).

The Torah’s demand upon such people is precisely the opposite. Those who aspire to greatness are held to a higher standard; their every thought, word, and deed must be for the sake of Heaven, their lives a sanctification of Ha-Shem in the eyes of Israel and the world. Ha-Shem will be sanctified in this world through those who claim the mantle of greatness, if not through their lives then through their deaths.