“This is What the L-rd Meant When He Said”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemini, we read of the untimely and tragic deaths of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Abihu.

As we have noted previously in our weekly messages (Shemini 5770-2010), the first of Nisan was supposed to be the most joyous day of Aaron’s life. On this day, the Tabernacle was to be consecrated and Aaron and his four sons were to be invested into the priesthood.

Instead, the Torah in Leviticus 10:1 reports,  וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ קְטֹרֶת; וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי השם, אֵשׁ זָרָה–אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם  the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Abihu, each took their fire-pan, put fire in the pan, and placed incense upon it; and brought before the L-rd an alien fire that He [G-d] had not commanded them. The Torah then reports that a fire came forth from before the L-rd and consumed Nadav and Abihu, and they died before the L-rd.

Except for the tantalizing phrase, “they brought before the L-rd an alien fire, that He had not commanded them,” we really have no idea what was the actual sin of the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Abihu.

There is little question that the rabbis felt that the Divine punishment meted out to Nadav and Abihu was unduly harsh for a ritual infraction committed by inexperienced priests. The rabbis, therefore, looked for other transgressions that the brothers might have committed that might justify the severe punishment.

Among the possible sins that Nadav and Abihu have committed that warranted death were:

1) Nadav and Abihu had been drinking before they entered the sanctuary.

2) They were guilty of arrogance and irreverence, having gazed boldly at the Divine Presence (Exodus 24:9).

3) They refused to marry and beget children, because they deemed no women good enough for them.

4) They had no respect for Moses and Aaron, and kept wondering when these old men would die, so that they may take control of the community.

5) They were too haughty to ask for advice, or to even consult with each other. Had they sought guidance of Moses, they surely would have avoided disaster.

Whatever the reasons for their deaths, the distraught family of Aaron was left bereft and in deep mourning, on what was intended to be a glorious day of celebration.

In an attempt to console his grieving brother, Moses says to Aaron, Leviticus 10:3, הוּא אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר השם לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ, וְעַל פְּנֵי כָל הָעָם אֶכָּבֵד; וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן of this did the L-rd speak, saying: “I will be sanctified to those who are nearest Me, thus I will be honored before the entire people.”

The Torah reports that Aaron’s response was silence.

Some commentators conclude from the unexpected deaths of Aaron’s sons that Nadav and Abihu were both men of truly exalted status who were judged by a stricter standard. In many societies, powerful citizens are often excessively respected or feared, and are permitted greater latitude. Consequently, people of influence frequently behave more permissively. In Judaism, the opposite is true. G-d has higher expectations of His great ones, and deals very strictly with their lapses. That is the true meaning of בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵש–I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me.

Perhaps even more perplexing than the actual meaning of Moses’ words of condolence is the unusual choice of words that Moses uses to introduce his words of consolation to Aaron: הוּא אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר השם לֵאמֹר of this, did the L-rd speak, saying, “I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me.” The Ramban suggests that when Moses said “of this,” he was referring to the fire itself, as if the fire were a Divine statement, and served as a wordless message of G-d’s intent.

On the other hand, Rashi says that Moses was actually referring to a previous statement that G-d had made. The deaths of Nadav and Abihu, suggests Rashi, were a fulfillment of G-d’s previous words to Moses, found in Exodus 29:43, in which He said, “I will be sanctified through My glory.”

Expanding on the interchange between Moses and his bereaved brother, the Midrash states that Moses came to Aaron and said to him, “Brother Aaron, it was told to me at Sinai: ‘I am going to sanctify this house, and I will sanctify it through a great man.’ I always supposed that the House would be sanctified either through you or through me. Now it appears that your sons were greater than we, since it was through them that the House was sanctified.” When Aaron heard that his children were punished more severely specifically because they were so close to G-d, he was then comforted.

Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky, in his 4th volume of Parasha Parables, cites an interpretation attributed to Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, who was attempting to comfort a distraught widow. Rabbi Auerbach explains that the blessing, בָּרוּך דַּיַּן הָאֶמָת blessed are You G-d the true Judge, said by the mourner at the time of the bereavement, is very difficult to understand and accept. Said Rabbi Auerbach to the widow: “You must however say it again and again, as difficult as it may be. Believe me, if you repeat it enough, you will understand it.”

Rabbi Kamenetzky explained that Moses’ words of comfort to Aaron, “I will be sanctified by those who are nearest to Me,” had the ability to console his brother, but only if Aaron understood that these special words were said many times before under the most difficult of circumstances.

There are no simple answers to death and bereavement, and no new formulas for condolence. It is perhaps because words are so inadequate at times such as these that our rabbis have formulated them for us by declaring, המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים May the Al-mighty comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Allow me a personal note. Although both my parents are gone more than twenty years, I am comforted by the fact that they each lived long and relatively healthy lives. My mother worked until she was 82, and died, after a short illness, at age 85. My father died a year and a half after my mother passed away, at age 89, most likely of a broken heart.

My wife, Aidel, however, finds the month of Adar to be a very difficult and painful period. The yahrtzeits of her father, mother and grandfather are all in the would-be joyous month of Adar. Aidel’s father died at the age of 54, after being diagnosed ten weeks earlier with pancreatic cancer. Her mother died at age 83, after a long struggle with Parkinson’s, eventually succumbing to cancer. Her grandfather also died in the month of Adar, and it is his suffering that most reminds me of the trauma of Aaron, who remained silent at the death of his two sons.

Zaidy Spitz, who lost virtually his entire immediate family in the Holocaust, lost a 21 year old son, a yeshiva student who volunteered to serve in the American army and was killed in the Battle of the Bulge. His second son was Aidel’s father. It is impossible for me to fathom any parent being comforted for the loss of even a single child, let alone the loss of two children.

At the end of the day, there really are no adequate words of comfort for such tragedies. That is why we must rely on the old formulas and repeat them again and again, perhaps not to comfort ourselves but at least to help us understand that these words of comfort have been uttered many times before, to others, in many tragic situations that were equal, or perhaps even greater, in magnitude to our own.

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.