“The Death of Aaron’s Sons: The Midrashic Perspective”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Shemini, speaks of the “eighth day” of the Tabernacle consecration ceremonies, which according to the commentators, were conducted on the first day of Nissan. The eighth day was intended to be the most special day in Aaron’s life. It was the day that the Tabernacle was to be finally consecrated, and Aaron and his sons were to be sanctified as priests.

Unfortunately, the would-be happiest day in Aaron’s life, turned out to be the most tragic, when his two older sons, Nadab and Abihu, brought a strange fire into the Tabernacle, and were struck down by a heavenly fire.

Certainly, the ways of G-d are inscrutable. What could Aaron possibly say after the deaths of his two children? Aaron’s memorable response was (Leviticus 10:3): “Vah’yee’dom Aharon,” Aaron remained silent. It is Aaron’s response of silence that often resounds today at all such unbearable tragedies.

The Midrash, however, labors, at great length, to develop a context for this great tragedy, offering a series of would-be clarifications.

The Midrash, as recorded in Louis Ginzberg’s classic Midrashic anthology, Legends of the Bible, movingly portrays the joy that Elisheva, the daughter of Aminadav, was experiencing on this eighth day. She was not only jubilant in anticipation of the dedication of the Tabernacle, but also for the five additional joys that were to be hers on this day. Her husband, Aaron, was to be consecrated as High Priest. Her brother-in-law, Moses, was to serve as the defacto king of Israel. Her son, Elazar, was appointed as the head of all the priests. Her grandson, Pinchas, had been appointed to be the Priest of War, and her brother, Nachshon, assumed the leadership of the great tribe of Judah.

Elisheva’s joy, however, was suddenly turned into unbearable grief. Two of the four sons of Elisheva and Aaron, were carried away by the ecstasy of the universal rejoicing over the heavenly fire. Although their true intent when they approached the Tabernacle with the censers of fire in their hands, was to increase G-d’s love for Israel through an act of sacrifice, they nevertheless paid for their actions with their lives. Suddenly, two razor thin flames of fire issued forth from the Holy of Holies, parted into four threads, and pierced the nostrils of both Nadab and Abihu. Although there were no visible signs of bodily injury, their souls were immediately consumed.

In an unusual portrait of Nadab and Abihu, the Midrash develops a very strong case for their punishment, arguing that they had committed various sins. Nevertheless, the Midrash still depicts them as exalted and pious. Among the litany of sins attributed to the young men was that, at G-d’s revelation at Sinai, they conducted themselves improperly. Instead of following the example of Moses, who turned his face away from the Divine Presence at the Burning Bush, they basked in the Divine vision on Mount Sinai.

It was at that moment, that G-d decreed that they deserve to die. But the Al-mighty did not want to spoil the joy of the revelation at Sinai by ending their lives. Instead, He waited for the dedication of the Tabernacle.

The Midrash says that G-d acted like a king who, on the day of his daughter’s wedding, discovered that the best man was guilty of a capital sin. He said: “If I cause the best man to be executed on the spot, I shall cast a pall on my daughter’s joy. I would rather have him executed on my day of gladness, than on hers.” G-d therefore inflicted the penalty of death upon Nadab and Abihu “on the day of the gladness of His heart” and not on the day on which the Torah was betrothed to Israel.

Among the other moral failings attributed to Nadab and Abihu was excessive pride, which was expressed on several occasions. Nadab and Abihu refused to marry because they considered no woman good enough for them, saying: “Our father’s brother is king, our father is High Priest, our mother’s brother is prince of his tribe, and we are the heads of the priests. What woman is worthy of us?” The Midrash maintains that many Jewish women remained unwed, hoping for Nadab and Abihu to woo them.

Again, they were carried so far by their excessive pride, that they eagerly awaited the time that Moses and Aaron would die, so that they could succeed them and guide the people of Israel themselves. But G-d said: “Boast not thyself of tomorrow. Many a colt has died, and his hide has been used as a cover for his mother’s back.”

When Nadab and Abihu brought the strange fire that resulted in their deaths, it was again due to their arrogance, for they failed to ask permission of either Moses or Aaron whether they should take part in the sacrificial service. In fact, Nadab and Abihu each brought the forbidden fire independently of each other, refusing to consult with one another, before starting out on this fatal action. Had they, perhaps, consulted with each other, or had they asked their father or their uncle, they probably would never have offered the forbidden fire, and avoided the tragic consequences.

The Midrash continues to speculate that not only was the offering improper, but that Nadab and Abihu were also not in the proper spiritual frame of mind to make any offering, for they had partaken of wine, which is forbidden to priests before entering the Sanctuary. They were also not dressed in the prescribed priestly garments, and had not properly prepared themselves by sanctifying their bodies with the waters of the laver. Furthermore, they arrogantly entered the Holy of Holies to bring their offering, to which admission had been prohibited, and even defied G-d by offering a “strange fire,” without being Divinely commanded to do so.

Despite their shortcomings, the Midrash and many Biblical commentators, consider Nadab and Abihu to be extremely pious people. In fact, the commentators and the Midrash claim that the death of Nadab and Abihu grieved G-d more than it grieved their father Aaron; not only because it grieves G-d to see a pious parent lose his or her children, but also because they themselves were considered worthy and pious young men.

Although the Torah states that Aaron’s response to this great tragedy was absolute silence, the Midrash attempts to portray the thoughts that were running through Aaron’s head at this most painful moment. When Aaron learned of the death of his two sons, he said: “All Israel saw You, G-d, at the Red Sea, as well as at Sinai without suffering injury. But, my sons, whom You ordered to dwell in the Tabernacle, a place that laymen may not enter without being punished by death–-my sons entered the Tabernacle to behold Your strength and Your might, and they died!”

G-d instructed Moses: “Tell Aaron the following: ‘I have shown you great favor and have granted you great honor through this, that your sons have been burnt. I assigned to you and to your sons a place nearer to the Sanctuary before all others, even before your brother Moses. But I have also decreed that whosoever enters the Tabernacle without having been commanded, shall be stricken with leprosy. Would you have wished that your sons, to whom the innermost places had been assigned, to sit as lepers for the rest of their lives outside the encampment, as a penalty for having entered the Holy of Holies?’” When Moses conveyed these words to his brother Aaron, Aaron said: “I thank You, O G-d, for that which You have done for me, for the kindness that You have shown me in causing my sons to die, rather than having them waste their lives as lepers. It behooves me to thank You and praise You, ‘because Your loving-kindness is better than life, my lips shall praise You.’”

The Midrash states that Moses attempted to comfort his brother Aaron in still another way, saying to him: “Your sons died to glorify the name of the L-rd, blessed be His name, for on Sinai, G-d said to me: ‘And there I will meet with the Children of Israel, the Tabernacle shall be sanctified by those who glorify me.’” “I knew,” said Moses, “that this Tabernacle of G-d was to be sanctified by the deaths of those who stood near it, but I thought that either you [Aaron] or I was destined for this [to die]. But, now I realize that your sons were nearer to G-d than we.”

These last words persuaded Aaron to temper his grief over the loss of his sons. Like a true wise man, he silently bore the heavy blow of fate without murmur or lament. G-d rewarded him for his silence by addressing him directly when imparting an important priestly law to him. Thus, the commandment forbidding intoxicants in the Tabernacle that follows forthwith in the Torah (Leviticus 10:8-18), was addressed to Aaron, and not to his brother, Moses.

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat is also known as Shabbat Parashat Parah.  It is the third of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim.  On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion concerning the Red Heifer is read from Numbers 19:1-22.