Shemini: An Object Lesson

Benjamin Franklin once commented, “A good example is the best sermon.”  Indeed, perhaps the greatest method to convey a message is by object lesson.  This notion may help us understand a very difficult expression in this week’s parsha:

And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. And there came forth fire from before the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said unto Aaron: ‘This is it that the Lord spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10:1-3).

The expression, “Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified” (bekrovai ekadesh), is often used to console the bereaved (see Midrash Aggadah 10:3); Aaron, it would seem, was not consoled, as the text records only that he was “silent”.  Nevertheless, the expression “bekrovai ekadesh” apparently afforded Aaron an understanding that allowed for silent sufferance.  What did he understand?

Reviewing the sin of Nadav and Avihu we note that it was preceded by revelation, “And the glory of the Lord appeared unto all the people” (Leviticus 9:23), and followed by capital punishment (Leviticus 10:2).  This structure of revelation, sin, and capital punishment defines two other seminal events: the sin of the Golden Calf and the sin of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  In comparing these three events, a profound insight into the enigmatic expression, “bekrovai ekadesh”, can be gained.

As for the sin of the Golden Calf, we read of the revelation that preceded it in the verse, “And the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel.” (Exodus 24:17).  Following the sin, God tells Moses:  “… let Me alone, that My wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them…” (Exodus 32:10).  Moses subsequently achieves clemency for the people, but God, nevertheless, commands him to execute the evil doers.  Nachmanides (Exodus 32:27) explains that even though the people were technically not guilty of the death penalty, God tells Moses, “Since you do not want Me to destroy the entire people, you must kill the worshippers by the sword.”

The beginnings of man are not that dissimilar.  God first reveals Himself to man with the command:  “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17).  Man, as we know, eats from the tree thus incurring the death penalty.  For reasons that will become clear further on, man is given a reprieve to become mortal.

Why, in each of these cases, is the penalty death?  What was so severe as to make the wrongdoers’ lives forfeit?

Starting with the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Rav Hirsch writes that “with this prohibition the education of Man for his moral, high godly calling begins.  It is the beginning of the history of mankind, and shows for all following generations the path they are to tread” (Genesis 2:17).   Man’s purpose is encapsulated in the form of a simple, yet irrational, command – to subordinate his own will to that of his Creator.  Failure to do so is a sin making one’s life forfeit, as Rav Hirsch writes:

“God had left it for him to decide, of his own free will, whether he would defer to the Will of God in determining what was good, and what bad, and thereby tread the path of life, or decide himself what was good or evil and thereby have to be fated to death” (Genesis 3:22).

Similarly, the sin of the Golden Calf is described by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi as man’s failure to subordinate his will to God’s will.  He writes: “Their sin consisted in the manufacture of an image of a forbidden thing and attributing divine power to a creation of their hands and their desires, without the command of God” (Kuzari 1:97).  Like Adam and Eve before them, the children of Israel chose to act according to their own desires and thus incurred the full wrath of God (see Ibn Ezra 32:9).

Tellingly, Nachmanides (Exodus 32:27) explains the need to execute the worshippers of the Golden Calf as the “sanctification of God’s name” (lekadesh Hashem).  In this we are reminded of bekrovai ekadesh, which brings us back to Nadav and Avihu.  Now, while there are many explanations of their sin – the text here states only that they “offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them.”  The Hadar Zekeinim commentary (Levitcus 10:1) makes clear that they went against God’s command, “acting,” writes Abraham Ibn Ezra, “of their own mind” (see also Ohr HaHayim).

So their sin, like all sin, was rooted in the act of doing one’s own will against the will of God.  But clearly not all sins carry the death penalty – why, then, did Nadav and Avihu incur summary execution?  The answer is “bekrovai ekadesh”.  Nadav and Avihu were among the leaders of the people, and as such, stood as representatives of the will of God.  By doing their own will they violated the very definition of their positions.  As representatives of God’s will, they not only made forfeit their own positions, but their very lives.

An object lesson is made of Nadav and Avihu to teach, “before all the people”, that in obeying God’s will man fulfills purpose, in rejecting it he forfeits purpose and as such, makes his life forfeit.  God is “sanctified” through those who are nigh to Him, not as a “propitiation to the gods”, but as an object lesson of the purpose of life.  This, I believe, is what Aaron was given to understand.

And this is the reason for the summary execution of the worshippers of the Golden Calf, which is also distinguished as a “sanctification” of God’s name.  As God’s representatives to the nations of the world, the people of Israel stand as an object lesson before all the nations.  Indeed, before the giving of the Torah, they were told by God: “And ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).  So, like Nadav and Avihu who provided an object lesson to the nation of Israel, the people of Israel now serve as an object lesson to the nations of the world.

Similarly, the special case of Adam and Eve can be understood.  They were told that their lives depended on fulfilling God’s will: “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”  Eating from the Tree should have resulted in summary execution; this, however, would have brought an end to the very world for which they were to serve as an object lesson.  Instead they “sanctified”, in some sense, God’s name by becoming mortal – conveying to all man that death is upon him for violation of God’s will.

Everyone, in their own way, is a leader.  Everyone, in their own way, must strive to fulfill purpose through commitment to God’s will. Everyone, in their own way, will thus sanctify God’s name as a living object lesson.

About the Author
Rabbi Mois Navon, an engineer and rabbi, has modeled himself on the principle of "Torah U'Madda" based on the philosophy of R. Soloveitchik as articulated by R. Lamm: Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. In this column Navon synthesizes Torah U'Madda to attain profound perspectives in the Parsha. His writings can be accessed at
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