Steve Rodan

A lack of clarity

And it was on the eighth day, that Moses summoned Aaron and his sons and the elders of Israel. [Leviticus 9:1]

Aaron’s two eldest sons were commanded to preside over the inauguration of the Mishkan. And in this weekly Torah portion of Shemini something happened, and Nadab and Abihu were dead.

The reason for their death is unclear. Shlomo Yitzhaki, known as Rashi, says the Torah simply does not give a reason. Moses Ben Nachman agrees. Based on the Talmud, they determine that Nadab and Abihu entered the Mishkan area drunk.

Can that be: the two sons of a holy man debasing themselves on what was to have been the most joyous day in Jewish history?

The Midrash sees it differently. The two sons of Aaron were greater than their father or even Moses. They were at the top of the pyramid of Israel.

Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord spoke, [when He said], ‘I will be sanctified through those near to Me, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ ” And Aaron was silent. [Leviticus 10:3]

The Midrash says that Moses saw his two dead nephews and turned to Aaron and cried, “Aaron, my brother. I knew that this house was to be sanctified through the beloved ones of the Omnipresent. But I thought it would be either through me or through you. Now, I see that they [Nadab and Abihu] were greater than you or I.” [Vayikra Rabbah. 12:2]

Did Moses actually mean that the Mishkan could only be sanctified through death? Was this G-d’s will?

The gap between the Midrash and the Talmud is jarring. It raises basic questions: Who are the people that wear the mantle of piety? Are they for real? Are they fake?

Hundreds of years later, King David would complain that he couldn’t tell friend from foe. David cried to G-d about the people he cared about and now gather to hurt him. One of them accused David of refusing to repay a loan. The accuser even brought witnesses. The king has no memory of taking any money from this man.

A lack of clarity makes us scared. Did I really see that? Is that really him? Is that really me?

— Did the State of Israel, which knew of plans for a major attack from the Gaza Strip a year before Oct. 7, 2023, collude with Hamas or its sponsors?

— Is the military, ordered not to save the thousands of Israelis along the Gaza border, a Jewish army? Can a military that doesn’t fight be regarded as a defense organization?

— Where did the tanks, guns, bullets, uniforms, food and vehicles disappear to when thousands of reservists were called for war?

— Does a government that accepts no responsibility for the biggest massacre in Israeli history represent the people?

— Does a Supreme Court that halts funding to rabbinical seminaries be regarded as Jewish? Can a court that does this remain faithful to justice, let alone the nation?

— Does a media that refuses to ask hard questions, rather repeats America’s dictates, serve as the people’s watchdog?

Few want to ask these questions, let alone dig for answers. It is part of the fog that characterizes our Torah portion and certainly that of our age. But it is our responsibility — whether rich or poor, gifted or ordinary — to keep asking and demand explanations. If not, we are no longer a nation or a people.

For their part, the Torah commentators do not stop probing. They insist there was a reason that Nadab and Abihu died. They say the Torah hints to this when G-d tells Aaron not to drink wine before the divine service. The same Midrash that deems Nadab and Abihu greater than Moses and Aaron presents an analogy: A king served by a faithful attendant goes missing one night. The royal guards join the king in the search and find the missing servant outside a tavern very much the worse for wear. The king then “severs his head in silence and appoints another attendant in his place.” Nobody knows who killed the attendant or why. But later the king warns the new man not to roam the bars.

Thus [it is said], “And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.” But we would not know why they [Nadab and Abihu] died, but for His commanding Aaron, “Do not drink wine that will lead to intoxication.” We know from this that they died precisely on account of the wine. For this reason, Scripture showed love to Aaron by directing the divine utterance to him alone, thus, “Do not drink wine that will lead to intoxication.” [Vayikra Rabbah 12:1]

Centuries later, Isaiah provided an explanation for the fall of leadership. The prophet spoke of the materialism that gripped the elite during the First Temple,

Their land also is full of silver and gold, neither is there any end of their treasures; their land also is full of horses, neither is there any end of their chariots. Their land also is full of idols; everyone worshipping the work of his own hands, that which his own fingers have made. [Isaiah 2:7-8]

There are two kinds of rich. Eliahu Ben Shlomo Zalman, the 18th Century rabbi known as the Genius of Vilna, says some of the wealthy simply want to finance their urges. One wants a Cadillac. Another wants five. Eventually, they have enough.

But there is another kind of rich. Their goal is to gather wealth regardless of need. For them, there is no limit. Everything and everybody are fair game. They employ propaganda and false morality to justify their behavior, as in “We’re doing this for the environment; we’re doing this for social justice; we’re doing this for AI.”

And then, clarity disappears: When a friend turns out to be an enemy; when a loved one is really a hater; when an intelligent person turns out to be obtuse. What you thought all your life was wrong.

The Zohar in the Torah portion of Ki Tetze cites the end of the “Fourth Exile,” a period long after the destruction of the two Temples. It comes after the arrival of the Messiah, the ancestor of King David. This exile is akin to a pit — an era of darkness and without Torah. Evil reigns and the pious have fallen. The good has been replaced by evil that appears good. The Egyptians, known as the “mixed multitude” are in control. They pose as Israelites to fool the masses.

And yet, the Zohar says, this, too, shall pass. It will end with the arrival of a righteous and brave man.

“And he [Moses] looked this way and that, and when he saw that there was no man” [Exodus 2:12] of Israel among the wicked of that generation, rather the mixed multitude. This will be at the end of the exile.

About the Author
Steve Rodan has been a journalist for some 40 years and worked for major media outlets in Israel, Europe and the United States. For 18 years, he directed Middle East Newsline, an online daily news service that focused on defense, security and energy. Along with Elly Sinclair, he has just released his first book: In Jewish Blood: The Zionist Alliance With Germany, 1933-1963 and available on Amazon.