Mordechai Silverstein

True Religion is About Big Questions

It was supposed to be a glorious day, the culmination of the induction of Aharon as Kohen Gadol (the High Priest) and his sons as kohanim (priests). The special sacrificial offerings had been presented and God’s presence had descended upon the Mishkan and the people. The people were ecstatic:

And Moshe and Aharon with him, came into the Tent of Meeting, and they came out and blessed the people, and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. And a fire came out from before the Lord and consumed on the altar the burnt offering and the fat, and all the people saw and shouted with joy and fell on their faces. (Leviticus 9:23-24)

But then tragedy struck:

And the sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, took each of them his fire pan and put fire in it and placed incense upon it and brought forward alien fire before the Lord, which He had not charged them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord; And Moshe said to Aharon, “This is just what the Lord spoke, saying: ‘Through those close to Me shall I be hallowed and in all the people’s presence shall I be honored.’” (Leviticus 10:1-3)

We are left aghast and astounded at both the timing and horror of this catastrophe. Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam), Rashi’s grandson, who was renowned for trying to make sense of the plain or pshat meaning of the Torah, offers this interpretation of the events:

Before the fire came forth from before the Lord (9:24), they had already each taken his fire pan to offer incense inside [the Mishkan] on the golden altar, for the morning’s incense always precedes the [burning of the sacrificial] limbs. Into those pans they put an alien fire, which he, Moshe, had not commanded them [to offer] on this day. Even though on all other days it is written that “the sons of Aaron the priest should put fire onto the altar” (1:7), on this particular day, Moshe did not command [this to be done]. He did not want them to bring a “regular” fire, because they were expecting the descent of a divine fire. It would have been inappropriate to bring an alien fire on that specific day; [they should have waited] so that God’s Name would be sanctified when everyone would find out that a fire had descended from heaven.

In other words, Rashbam alters the chronology of the event to explain its tragic nature. According to Rashbam, the brothers’ sin occurred before the divine revelation, threatening to upstage God’s theophany. It is fascinating to note that, as a whole, Rashbam’s “definitive” interpretation did not upstage rabbinic thought on this story, for this tragic story prompted much soul searching among the sages. A whole chapter of the midrashic collection, Vayikra Rabbah, the rabbinic commentary on Leviticus from the period of the Talmud, is devoted to attempts to explain it, with interpretation which range from radical theology to the banal, one after the other, with none taking on the mantle of being more acceptable than the next.

What did Nadav and Avihu do which could possibly have warranted such a severe punishment the sages asked?  Since the story itself is laconic, its only hint being that the brothers offered “strange fire”, the rabbinic sages had broad license to interpret. I will just mention a few of the more well-worn explanations in order to focus on a few of the more provocative ones: they performed their service to God while drunk; their service was unauthorized by their teachers; their new found positions made them arrogant, the list goes on.

More interesting from my perspective, are the theological explanations which do not seek out Nadav and Avihu’s sins as an explanation for what happened to them.

The chapter in Vayikra Rabbah opens with a peticha, a midrash which begins with a verse from elsewhere in Scripture, interprets it, ultimately weaving its way back to the liturgical reading:

“After the death of the two sons of Aaron.” Rabbi Shimon opened: “Everything is as it is for everyone. There is one fate for the righteous and for the wicked” (Ecclesiastes 9:2).

The opening verse from Ecclesiastes asserts that a person’s fate is unrelated to his/her actions. The midrash then proceeds to offer a long list of examples from throughout Scripture where righteous individuals suffered the same awful fate as wicked ones, until it finally winds its way back to our case, asserting that Aharon’s sons suffered the same fate as Korah and his followers:

There is one fate” – these are the sons of Aharon, of whom it is written: “In peace and uprightness” (Malachi 2:6). “For the wicked” – this is the assembly of Koraḥ, of whom it is written: “Move, now [from the tents of these wicked men]” (Numbers 16:26). These entered to sacrifice in dispute and emerged burned, and these entered to sacrifice without dispute, and emerged burned. (Vayikra Rabbah 20:1, Margulies ed. pp. 441-445)

The thinking of the author of this midrash is obviously influenced not only by the cynicism of the book of Ecclesiastes but also by his reflections on his own reality. I think it is important for the modern religious Jew to be aware that both biblical and rabbinic wisdom were not naïve and include serious reflection on both lives lived and serious scriptural reading.

This same conclusion can be drawn regarding the second midrash of the chapter which also draws some painful conclusions:

“And to the wicked, do not raise your horn” (Psalms 75:5). The Holy One blessed be He said to the wicked: ‘The righteous did not rejoice in My world, and you seek to rejoice?’

Here, the midrash opens with a verse from Psalms which urges the wicked not to be arrogant over the success of their evil doings. The intension of the midrash is that the wicked should note that if the righteous face tribulations in their lives, they  be ought  be aware that they should have no reason to rejoice. The midrash then gives a number of examples of the “suffering righteous”, culminating with the example of Elisheva bat Aminadov, Aharon’s wife and mother of Nadav and Avihu whose rejoicing at the installation of her husband and children in the priesthood was ultimately marred by tragedy:

Elisheva bat Aminadav did not rejoice in the world when she saw five crowns [attained by her relatives] on one day. Her brother-in-law was king (Moshe), her brother (Nahshon), a prince, her husband (Aharon), High Priest, her two sons (Nadav and Avihu), the two deputy priests, her grandson Pinḥas anointed for war. When her sons entered to sacrifice and were burned, her joy was transformed into mourning. That is what is written: “After the death of the two sons of Aaron.” (Vayikra Rabbah 20:2, Margulies ed.)

For this midrash, the lives of the righteous are being used by God as a didactic warning to the wicked, namely, that if this happens to the righteous, you should take that into account in your own behavior. Note, how different the conclusion of this midrash is from that of the previous one.

My point here is not to present definitive answers to either the scriptural questions posed by the tragic story of Nadav and Avihu nor to its theological challenges; rather, it is to demonstrate that the sages did not shy away from struggling with big questions. Indeterminacy of faith and the knowledge that definitive answers to questions may never ring true is no reason to lose faith. This realization is one of Judaism’s major attractions. For Jews, this is what religion is all about.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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