“Adonai spoke to Moshe after the death of the two sons of Aharon who died when they drew too close to the presence of Adonai.” – Vayikra [Leviticus] 16:1.
This week’s parashah begins with a reference to the death of two sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, whose death we first read two weeks prior in Parashat Shemini.
The reason for Nadav and Avihu’s deaths noted in this Parashat Achrei Mot, however, differs from that found in Parashat Shemini. In this week we are told they died as “they drew too close to the presence of Adonai”, while previously we were told:
“Now Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before Adonai alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from Adonai and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of Adonai.” – Vayikra [Leviticus] 10:1-2.
This tells us there may, in fact, be more reasons as to why Nadav and Avihu died.
The 4 Sins of Nadav and Avihu
Parashah 20 in the Midrash Vayikra Rabbah expounds on this thought and explains that there were in fact 4 actions that caused them to sin.
- They drank wine which is alluded to in the commandment against drinking before entering the Mishkan, written in Vayikra [Leviticus] 10:9.
- They didn’t marry as they believed no one was worthy of their status since their father was Aharon – the High Priest, their maternal uncle was Nachshon ben Aminadav – the “president”, and their paternal uncle was Moshe Rabbeinu – the “king”.
- They expected themselves to be the future leaders of Yisrael once Moshe and Aharon died, stating, “When will these two old people die and we rule in their stead?”
- They impetuously stated a halachic ruling in front of Moshe, the leader of Kol Yisrael. This being in violation of halacha which states a student cannot state the halacha in front of their Rabbi unless they are at least 12 milin apart (about 11.5 km), encompassing the entire camp of Bnei Yisrael.
In his book “איש יהודה” (“The Man of Yehudah“), Rav Yehudah Shlush mentions how the Sages identify three sins from these four actions:
- Pride: Asking when Moshe and Aharon would die as they believed themselves to be righteous enough to replace them. So much so, they even stated halacha in front of Moshe himself.
- Celibacy: HaShem created humans male and female, two halves of one whole. A man without a wife is likely to do things recklessly as he is yet to be settled. The Sages further enumerate that a man without a wife is without happiness, Torah, or blessing. This begs the question, would not an unmarried man have more time to study Torah? Again, the Sages advise that if by a certain age a man is without a wife it means he remains unsettled to have quality learning. As an example, we can learn from Rabbi Akiva who first married and only then learned Torah for 24 long years. Nadav and Avihu lacked this calmness.
- Lust: The two consumed wine before entering into the service of the Mishkan. To work in the Mishkan, one must have a clear mind. Drinking clouds judgment, causing bad decisions.
The 4 Who Entered Pardes
The Midrash recounts a story of 4 who went into Pardes with only one returning safely:
“The Sages taught: Four entered the orchard [pardes], i.e., dealt with the loftiest secrets of Torah, and they are as follows: Ben Azzai; and ben Zoma; Aḥer, the other, a name for Elisha ben Avuya; and Rabbi Akiva… …The Gemara proceeds to relate what happened to each of them: Ben Azzai glimpsed at the Divine Presence and died… …Ben Zoma glimpsed at the Divine Presence and was harmed, i.e., he lost his mind… …Aḥer chopped down the shoots of saplings. In other words, he became a heretic. Rabbi Akiva came out safely.” – Babylonian Talmud: Chagigah 14b.
In the aforementioned book by Rav Shlush, he connects the story of Nadav and Avihu to the 4 Chachamim (Torah scholars) who entered Pardes:
- Rabbi Akiva survived due to his humility, being far from lust and having a wife, despite only beginning to learn at the age of 40. He was equally balanced between the intellect and the emotions as well as the energies of the Nefesh, Ruach, and Neshama.
“Rabbi Akiva was the shepherd of ben Kalba Savua, one of the wealthy residents of Jerusalem. The daughter of Ben Kalba Savua saw that he was humble and refined. She said to him: If I betroth myself to you, will you go to the study hall to learn Torah? He said to her: Yes. She became betrothed to him privately and sent him off to study.” – Babylonian Talmud: Ketuvot 62b.
- Elisha ben Avuya, also known as Aḥer, sadly ended up an apikoros (heretic) giving into lust. One reason for his inclination towards lust was due to his mother and the other his father.
According to Chagigah 9b in the Jerusalem Talmud, it was said that Aḥer’s evil conduct arose either from his father dedicating him to the study of the Torah for the sake of the honor which that study would bring him, and not for the honor of heaven, or because shortly before his birth his mother when passing a house of idol worship, where an unkosher animal was being cooked, desired to eat of it.
- Ben Azzai went mad as he never married and only wished to learn Torah. Thus he was unbalanced. It is noted how he made the following remark:
“Ben Azzai said to them: What shall I do, as my soul yearns for Torah, and I do not wish to deal with anything else. It is possible for the world to be maintained by others, who are engaged in the mitzvah to be fruitful and multiply.” – Babylonian Talmud: Yevamot 63b.
- Ben Zoma perished due to his pride. It is noted during Simchat Beit HaShoevah how he boastfully made the following statement:
“…Members of all nations, merchants and craftsmen, diligently come to the entrance of my home, and I wake up and find all of these before me.” – Babylonian Talmud: Berakhot 58a.
Building upon this idea I will illustrate the connection of the previous two points to the 4 groups of Israelites present at Yam Suf, the 4 sons of the Pesach Hagaddah, and the 4 Species of Sukkot. First I will cover each of these points briefly before connecting everything together.
The 4 Groups at Yam Suf (The Red Sea)
It is noted in Midrash Mekhilta 14:3, the Israelites were categorized into four different groups prior to crossing Yam Suf (the Red Sea). Each group believed in a different course of action with the Israelites all but surrounded. They each said one of the following:
- “Let us pray to G‑d.”
- “Let us return to Egypt.”
- “Let us throw ourselves into the sea.”
- “Let us wage war upon the Egyptians.”
The 4 Children of the Pesach Hagaddah
During Pesach (Passover) we read in the Hagaddah about 4 types of sons:
- The wise son — Chacham.
- The wicked son — Rasha.
- The simple son — Tam.
- The son who doesn’t know to ask — She’eino Yodea Lishol.
The 4 Species of Sukkot
During Sukkot, we are commanded to gather 4 species, bind them, and wave them together. In Vayikra Rabbah 30:12, we learn the species represent 4 types of Jews:
- The Etrog possessing good taste and a good fragrance represent a person with both wisdom and good deeds.
- The Hadas (myrtle) possessing a good fragrance but inedible represents a person who has good deeds but lacks wisdom.
- The Lulav (date palm) possessing good taste, but no smell represents the person with wisdom, but without good deeds.
- The Aravah (willow) possessing neither taste nor smell represents a person with neither good deeds nor wisdom.
To help illustrate this point further, we could interpret taste to represent materiality, and smell to represent spirituality as Mashiach himself will judge by smell:
“He shall smell the truth by his reverence for Adonai: He shall not judge by what his eyes behold, Nor decide by what his ears perceive.” – Yeshayahu [Isaiah] 11:3.
The 4 Modern Types of Jews
Everything mentioned so far is linked with the soul of Am Yisrael today. The aforementioned types interestingly manifest themselves in exactly 4 types of Jews:
- The Balanced Ones
- The Empty Ones
- The Spiritual Ones
- The Material Ones
The Balanced Ones
These are those who harmoniously temper their material needs with their spirituality. Symbolically they represent:
- Rabbi Akiva: Just like the namesake, today Bnei Akiva embodies the balance of materiality and spirituality, reflected in their motto: “Torah Va’Avodah” – Torah and Work. This group finds balance in their two roles of transforming darkness below and bringing down transcendent light from above.
- “Let us pray to G‑d.”: They wish to put their trust in the Kadosh Baruch Hu by taking an active role in doing the simplest physical action – praying for the era of Mashiach.
- The wise son — Chacham: Their goal is to make Earth a dwelling place for HaShem, underscoring the purpose of elevating the holy sparks’ of materiality through physical and spiritual devotion.
- The Etrog: Their mission is to create a world of perfect harmony and beautiful synchronicity where materiality and spirituality become one.
The Empty Ones (The Erev Rav)
These are those who harm the physical and spiritual wellbeing of Am Yisrael. Symbolically they represent:
- Pride: They wish to rule over Yisrael and erase its Jewish identity, namely Torah. Chillul HaShem (desecrating the Name of G-d) or more specifically Avodah Zarah (“foreign worship” or “idolatry”) is, of course, the first of the 3 sins one cannot transgress even for Pikuach Nefesh. Failing to give credit where it’s due, inadvertently channels it to where it is not due.
- Elisha ben Avuya, also known as Aḥer: They are in essence the apikoros of the nation.
- “Let us return to Egypt”: They wish to transform Am Yisrael to be like the Goyim (nations), thereby depriving us of our unique identity and true purpose.
- The wicked son — Rasha: At their core they hate Judaism, elevating themselves to be the judge, jury, and executioners of Bnei Yisrael.
- The Aravah: They are detrimental to both the spiritual and physical fabric of Am Yisrael.
The Spiritual Ones
These are those who mistakenly put all their effort into establishing spirituality within the cosmos while neglecting the primary needs of building a physical habitat for spirituality first. Symbolically they represent:
- Celibacy: Without elevating the holy sparks of materiality, they focus solely on spirituality. In the process, they limit, or worse, negate spiritual progress by failing to match both halves to create a whole. In turn, this creates a spiritually “loveless” marriage. Failing to consummate a marriage, means failing to reproduce, which robs the world of future generations. Ratsach (murder) is, of course, the second of the 3 sins one cannot transgress even for Pikuach Nefesh. By “killing” materiality, one is, in essence, giving up a material life for a spiritual one – a life for a life.
- Ben Azzai: An unbalanced individual is prone to become more extreme due to a lack of calmness inhibiting their lives. Furthermore, they make it the responsibility of others to supply their material needs.
- “Let us throw ourselves into the sea.”: To them immersing in Torah study is all they wish to accomplish in this life. Plunging deep into spirituality, they forget their material responsibility. As is says in Pirkei Avot 2:2: “Rabban Gamaliel the son of Rabbi Judah Hanasi said: excellent is the study of the Torah when combined with a worldly occupation, for toil in them both keeps sin out of one’s mind; But [study of the] Torah which is not combined with a worldly occupation, in the end comes to be neglected and becomes the cause of sin…”
- The simple son — Tam: Like many in this demographic, they live unaware of other ways of life. They remain in darkness about the going on’s of wider society. They are taught what to say, how to think, and how to live, yet aren’t comfortable asking questions, going so far as to alienate and ostracize those that do.
- The Hadas (myrtle): Their role appears to be solely focused on bringing down spirituality by living in seclusion away from those who live or think differently to them, particularly those pursuing materiality.
The Material Ones
These are those whose focus is on pursuing material success while leaving behind any thought of spirituality or the divine purpose for which they were created. Symbolically they represent:
- Lust: Consumed by their desire for material success they have fallen into the physical temptations and made it their be-all and end-all. In doing so they have forgotten their identity and remain fixed to materialism. Lust gives birth to Isurey bi’ah (forbidden relationships) which, of course, is the last of the 3 sins which one cannot transgress even for Pikuach Nefesh.
- Ben Zoma: They pride themselves on being “wiser” than their spiritual counterparts, often thinking themselves superior due to their material accomplishments.
- “Let us wage war upon the Egyptians.”: Like several of the modern founders of Zionism they aren’t afraid to engage the enemy in the material domain. However, they mistakenly believe it is their might that would give them victory as opposed to the Rachamim of the Kadosh Baruch Hu.
- The son who doesn’t know to ask — She’eino Yodea Lishol: Today, it is widely accepted by the religious community that many Jews fall under the Talmudic classification of “Tinok shenishba” (“captured infant”) as stated in the Babylonian Talmud: Shabbat 68b and Shevuot 5a, meaning they were raised without an appreciation for Judaism. An alternative term is “Tinok shenishba bein hanochrim”, which translates as, “An infant captured [and consequently raised] among gentiles.” The word “captured” here is fortunately open to interpretation. As such, a captured infant is not accountable for failing to live in accordance with the Torah.
- The Lulav (date palm): Their role appears to be focused on building the material fabric of the nation. Unfortunately, in doing so they have neglected their spirituality, thereby forgoing their true identities and purpose. Like their spiritual counterparts, they prefer living far away from any influence of spirituality.
The Awesome Foursome
What is important to take away from all this is, despite our differences we all make up the fabric of Am Yisrael – yes, even the Erev Rav whose purpose Moshe Rabbeinu foresaw when he accepted them into the nation. The detailed reasons for this acceptance are beautifully explained in the teachings of the “Zohar” by the Arizal, and by Rabbi Chaim Vital in “Ets Chaim”.
By viewing ourselves as individuals, we are credited with only the merits we accomplish and punished for the faults we commit. Whereas when we view Kol Yisrael as an extension of ourselves, we partake and take pride in the achievements of one another as well as feel a sense of responsibility for the shortcomings of each person. Doing so makes brings us closer together as a people and united in our shared feelings of national responsibility. My personal idea here is that if one were to achieve this level of Ahavat Yisrael (love for your fellow Jew), the achievements of every Jew would then be accounted unto them, while the individual’s faults would be equally divided between the community.
Each member of Am Yisrael possesses a transcendent light required for the Geula. When combined with one another our light creates a glow brighter than any individual or group can radiate. Every light adds more radiance no matter how dim or bright. Therefore, only by accepting each other will we be able to appreciate one another for the ways in which we contribute to the spiritual and material fabric of our nation, and eventually the world.