This Week's Torah Portion: Why Did Aaron's Sons Get the Death Penalty? (Part 28)

Parashath Acharei Moth (Leviticus XVI, 1-XVIII, 30)

Now that the Passover season is over, we return to our regular commentary on the weekly Torah readings.

The first verse in this week’s parasha reads as follows:

Vayëdabbér Ha-Shem el Moshe acharei moth shënei bënei Aharon bëqorvatham bifnei Ha-Shem vayamuthu (“And Ha-Shem spoke to Moshe after the death of Aharon’s two sons as they came close before Ha-Shem and died.”)

The bulk of the parasha goes on to describe the Yom Kippur service in the Mishkan and Temple, and is consequently read in the synagogue on Yom Kippur as well as this week.

The two sons, of course, were Nadav and Avihu, whose tragic deaths on the eighth day of their installation as kohanim (“priests”) in the Mishkan is recorded in parashath Shëmini (Leviticus X, 1-5). The Talmud (Yërushalmi Yoma I, 1) explains the connection between that event and the Day of Atonement by remarking:

[J]ust as Yom Kippur atones for Israel, so does the death of tzaddiqim (“righteous people”) atone for Israel.

That said, it must be noted that we read of the deaths of numerous tzaddiqim in the Torah, including those of Moshe and Aharon. Surely there is some reason beyond chronological accident why the death of these two is mentioned in conjunction with the Yom Kippur service.

We begin by noting the unusual “double wording” of the verse. Since it already tells us that Moshe received these instructions acharei moth shënei bënei Aharon (“after the death of Aharon’s two sons”), the word vayamuthu (“and they died”) at the end seems extraneous. Perhaps we can elucidate this with a lesson in Hebrew grammar, compliments of the Oral Torah.

Anyone with a living sense of the Hebrew language knows that there are two forms of the word routinely translated as “after”: achar and acharei. In Bëréshith Rabba XLIV, 6, the great sage Rav Huna tells us that they are not mutually interchangeable:

In every case where achar is mentioned, it means that the events are in close sequence to one another; acharei, separated (cf. also Rashi on Sota 33b, s.v. acharei mëvo derech hashemesh).

This suggests some “distance” or “separation” between the historical event and its association with Yom Kippur. That this is so may also be inferred from a comment found in Torath Kohanim (parashath Shëmini): [Nadav and Avihu] behaved as though they were not [Aharon’s] sons” in the actions leading up to their deaths. However, here they are explicitly referred to as shënei bënei Aharon.

As I noted in my discussion of parashath Shëmini, Oral Torah sources have noted numerous shortcomings of the two brothers in connection to this tragic affair. Rabbi Eli‘ezer put his finger on the definitive act, the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” when he said:

Aharon’s sons did not die until they taught halacha [‘Jewish law’] in the presence of their teacher, Moshe (‘Eiruvin 63a).

As numerous commentators point out (cf. especially Maharsha and Torah Tëmima), despite the fact that the halacha which they taught was correct, they were nonetheless chayyav mitha, “liable for the death penalty” (cf. Yoreh Dé‘a 242: 4-8 and commentaries for the full halachic parameters of this offense).

What led them to make so disastrous an error?

Rashi quotes a midrash in commenting on our verse:

Rabbi El‘azar ben ‘Azarya used to apply a parable to this verse of a sick man to whom a doctor came and said, “Don’t eat cold food and don’t lie in a steam room.” Another doctor came and said, “Don’t eat cold food and don’t lie in a steam room so that you don’t die like So-and-so.” The second one motivated the patient more than the first.

The parable is very clear. Ha-Shem prefaced these instructions as to how Aharon (and after him every subsequent kohén gadol) was to approach the Holy of Holies with a reminder of the consequences of Nadav’s and Avihu’s improper act as a stimulus pour encourager les autres, as the saying goes.

That said, we are reminded that the rabbis of the Talmud were very exacting users of language, and so it is fair to enquire what precisely lies behind the advice of the physicians in the parable to avoid heat after consuming cold.

The Torah contains 613 mitzvoth, Divine commandments, which are not to be performed in a perfunctory manner. They require some forethought, with careful attention to the proper intent and the relevant halachoth. It is this, in part, which underlies the custom which many people have of reciting “behold I am ready and prepared to fulfill mitzva X” before reciting the blessing which precedes the actual performance of the mitzva itself. This concentrates one’s attention on what one is about to do.

Notwithstanding that fulfilling mitzvoth requires precise attention to halacha, it also requires a measure of joyous enthusiasm. Ha-Shem is not only Malkénu, “our King,” but also Avinu, “our Father.” Just as we should cheerfully carry out our parents’ wishes out of our love for them, so should we serve our “heavenly Parent.”

These two aspects must be kept in balance. There is a fine line to walk between being too coldly analytical on the one hand, and being too emotional and excited on the other.

Our verse provides a hint as to where Nadav and Avihu went wrong by telling us that their death occurred bëqorvatham bifnei Ha-Shem. Most of the other infractions mentioned in the sources regarding this affair — e.g. that their hair was wild and uncut, or that they were improperly attired — convey an air of haste. They were caught up in the excitement of what Rabbi Naftali Tzëvi Yëhuda Berlin (the Nëtziv) calls their “overwhelming desire to achieve love of Ha-Shem” (cf. Ha‘améq Davar on Leviticus X, 1). In short, they tried to come too close too quickly, and in their excitement and enthusiasm simply could not wait to consult Moshe. They took the decision by themselves and thus sealed their own fate.

But to be so driven to seek Ha-Shem is surely a temptation arising from greatness, demonstrating the immense spiritual greatness of the two brothers, and their great piety. Nadav and Avihu were not ordinary people, but true gëdolim greater than Moshe and Aharon in some ways (cf. Zëvachim 115a, cited by Rashi on Leviticus X, 3.) Only somebody imbued with spiritual greatness could have such an overwhelming desire as the Nëtziv describes.

This, then, is why their death was an atonement. However, its mention here as an introduction to Yom Kippur serves also as a reminder to us of the balance necessary between emotional “heat” and “cold.” The balance is necessary to achieve the proper measure of warmth between the extremes, which is necessary to our Divine service and gradual progress — mitzva by mitzva, year after year — in coming ever closer to Ha-Shem.