Despite its many “stories,” the Torah is not a story book; their inclusion comes to teach us many important lessons. Often, the lesson is obvious, while sometimes it is deep beneath the surface. One of the most difficult stories to understand occurs in this week’s portion with the tragic death of Aharon’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu.
Leading up to the Tabernacle’s inauguration, for seven days Aharon and his four sons were anointed and trained in its service. On the eighth day, the 1st of Nissan, the Tabernacle service was to begin in earnest. Although they had done everything right, the fire from heaven did not descend to consume the sacrificed portions on the altar. Nadav and Avihu independently decided that what was needed to bring forth the fire from heaven was an incense offering in the Holy of Holies. Yet instead of consulting with Moshe or Aharon the elder Sages and leaders of the Jewish nation, they took matters into their own hands and set out to bring the incense offering themselves. They took pans, made their way through the crowd of people, ran home and took coals from their stoves, ran back through the crowd to the Tabernacle, took some of the incense from the incense altar, put it on their coals, and entered with it into the Holy of Holies, and placed it on the Holy Ark. At this point, two strands of fire shot out, each splitting into two, and entered Nadav’s and Avihu’s nostrils. The fire consumed their souls, but their bodies, and even their clothing, remained unsinged. And before they actually died, their bodies were thrown out of the Holy of Holies and out of the sanctuary itself so they would not render it spiritually unclean. The fire then travelled to the altar and consumed the sacrificial portions. Upon seeing the fire consume the portions of the sacrifices, the people rejoiced and fell on their faces. No one realized that Nadav and Avihu had been killed until they failed to get up with all the other people.
At this point the Torah presents a very perplexing statement from Moshe to Aharon (Leviticus 10:3):
ספר ויקרא פרק י
ג) וַיֹּאמֶר משֶׁה אֶל אַהֲרֹן הוּא אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְדֹוָד לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ וְעַל פְּנֵי כָל הָעָם אֶכָּבֵד וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן
3) And Moshe said to Aharon, “Of this did Hashem speak, saying. “I will be sanctified by those who are nearest to Me, thus, I will be honored before the entire people.” and Aharon was silent.
Rashi explains that when, in Exodus (Chapter 29) Hashem instructed Moshe to anoint and install Aharon and his sons as Cohanim and to inaugurate the Tabernacle, Hashem said: ונקדש בכבודי – And it (the Tabernacle) will be sanctified with My Honor hinting to Moshe that there would be a secondary way in which the Tabernacle would be sanctified, במכובדי – through my most honored ones. Moshe told Aharon that he did not understand then exactly who would have the merit of sanctifying the Tabernacle, and that Moshe thought it would be through one of them; but now that Nadav and Avihu were chosen for the job, it is clear that they were even greater. When Aharon heard these words from Moshe, he felt consoled and fell silent.
There is a strong paradox here. On the one hand, Moshe said to Aharon that, in a way, his two sons were greater even than they; quite a statement. The Torah reading on Yom Kippur moreover mentions the deaths of Nadav and Avihu because the death of pious and righteous people atones for their generation. In the case of Nadav and Avihu, their death was so significant that it atones for all future generations. Therefore, to this day it is read on Yom Kippur to afford us that atonement.
The Sages have understood, although not mentioned in the Torah itself, that Nadav and Avihu, in contrast to their lofty spiritual level, committed numerous sins in the illegal incense that they brought:
- They executed a law in the presence of their teachers Moshe and Aharon, a crime guilty of the death penalty.
- They entered the Holy of Holies after drinking wine with an unwarranted sacrifice, while wearing improper clothing for the job and without the required washing of their hands and feet. (5 different sins)
- The fire that they used came from their kitchen stoves and not from a holy place.
How are we to understand what happened here? From this list of transgressions (and several more) it seems like these were the nation’s two biggest sinners. Yet, Moshe revealed what Hashem had told him earlier, viz, that in a way they were greater even than he and Aharon. We also see this from their having been treated with the utmost respect even after their deaths. They were buried with proper eulogies, and we mourn their deaths each year as we read the Torah on Yom Kippur morning.
The 250 people who sided with Korach and were also killed by fire didn’t do a fraction of what Nadav and Avihu did, and yet Korach’s compatriots were called “sinners with their lives”- meaning that they were the cause of their own deaths because of their stubbornness. We do not find that Nadav and Avihu were held accountable for their own deaths.
Rav Eliyahu Desslerזצ”ל in his work Michtav MiEliyahu (Vol. 2,p.244) provides the following insight to resolve this issue.
Whenever the Sages offer different explanations of a sin, those explanations usually reflect different manifestations of the same flaw. So, even though the Sages come up with many different sins that Nadav and Avihu committed, only one flaw was at their root. Their hamartia was haughtiness. They thought that they were on a higher level than they actually were and, therefore, they took liberties appropriate for someone on that more exalted level; but because they were not really there, for them it was a sin for which they were punished.
It all started at Mount Sinai when Hashem told Moshe, Aharon, Nadav, Avihu, and the 70 elders to accompany Moshe to Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:1).
ספר שמות פרק כד
א) וְאֶל משֶׁה אָמַר עֲלֵה אֶל יְדֹוָד אַתָּה וְאַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא וְשִׁבְעִים מִזִּקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתֶם מֵרָחֹק
1) To Moshe He said, “Go up to Hashem, you, Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and you shall bow down from a distance.”
When Nadav and Avihu were listed even before the 70 elders, they then realized that when Moshe and Aharon died, they would be the ones to assume the Jewish Nation’s leadership. Indeed, one of the sins leveled against them was that they actually articulated that very point. As they were following Moshe and Aharon, they said, “When these two old men die, we are going to take over leadership of the people, so we had better shape up!” Even though they said it in a positive way, it was still inappropriate to say it. We see that they were very confident in their greatness, even to the point where they felt that it was time for them to take over for Moshe and Aharon.
When Hashem appeared on Mount Sinai, the verse says (24:11):
ספר שמות פרק כד
יא) וְאֶל אֲצִילֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא שָׁלַח יָדוֹ וַיֶּחֱזוּ אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים וַיֹּאכְלוּ וַיִּשְׁתּוּ
11) Against the great men of the Children of Israel He did not stretch out His hand – They gazed at Hashem, yet they ate and drank.
This verse refers to Nadav and Avihu. Hashem should have “stretched out His hand to punish them” there, but He didn’t. What was their crime? They gazed at Hashem’s manifestation when they were not on the level to do so. The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:25) explains that they were really guilty of the death penalty right then and there, but Hashem spared them because He did not want to spoil the event of receiving the Torah. He knew that this flaw would surface again, so He waited for it to do so.
This is what Hashem meant when He told Moshe, “I will be sanctified by those who are nearest to me.” Hashem knew that He already had the “candidates” for the sanctification of His name, i.e., Nadav and Avihu.
We see that Nadav and Avihu were really on a very high spiritual level, second only to Moshe and Aharon. They were the next in line for leadership of the Jewish nation. Unfortunately, they felt that they were actually on the same level as Moshe and Aharon, which is what caused them all their problems.
This is why they did not consult Moshe and Aharon, their teachers, before acting. Why should we? We are on the same level and are no longer their students. We are so holy, we can bring fire from a regular place and will be permitted into the Holy of Holies even without the necessary garments and qualifications.
Here lies the true tragedy of this story. These were two such holy people, with so much potential and such a bright future. They were truly great, but a small character flaw caused them to lose it all. Had they only been a bit more humble and not thought of themselves as greater than they actually were, they would have had so much. This is the hidden lesson of this story and why we read it on Yom Kippur. Look at all the destruction and loss that even a small flaw in one’s character can cause. It is a cry for us to work on our character and correct any flaws that we have. If we do not refine our character, the problems that we have will surface time and again in many of our decisions and actions.
This is why the study of מוסר – Mussar – character development – part of almost every yeshiva’s curriculum, is so crucial. For a short time each day, special books called ספרי מוסר – books of Mussar – are studied intensely to focus the student on possible character flaws that he needs to correct. The philosophy is that, over time, slowly, bit by bit, he will learn to overcome his natural tendencies and wear away at his character flaws. This is a difficult and arduous process, but one well worthwhile. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, זצ”ל, the father of the current Mussar curriculum, once said, “It is easier to learn the entire Talmud than to change one human characteristic.” To be considered a Torah Sage requires not only diligent study and mastery of the Torah, but perfection of character as well.
Moshe told Aharon, that Hashem told him, “I will be sanctified by those who are nearest to Me, thus, I will be honored before the entire people.” The Sages wonder why the sanctification of the Tabernacle required the demise of a great person to be complete. What is the meaning behind this?
R. Baruch Epstein (1860-1942), author of the Torah Temimah, presents the following answer.
Whenever Hashem reveals Himself in a miraculous way, there is a sanctification of His Name because we are struck with His awe and realize His power and might, and we resolve to be better because of it. In this particular situation, it was even more necessary, because with the construction of the Tabernacle came the option to atone for sins through sacrifices. Since one could repair his sin through a sacrifice, there existed a danger that people would not be as careful to refrain from doing sins. The reality is that a sin done deliberately cannot be atoned for with a sacrifice. Only sins committed inadvertently, or by accident are eligible for atonement by sacrifice. This was an important lesson that needed to be taught at the inauguration of the Tabernacle, so that the record would be eminently clear.
When Aharon heard Moshe’s words, the Torah tells us, “Aharon was silent.” He did not weep or complain or say even one more word about it. He completely accepted Hashem’s judgment and was happy with it.
As a reward for his silence under these very difficult circumstances, immediately following this event Hashem spoke to Aharon alone, instead of through Moshe or with Moshe as it was in all the other instances. There is a hidden message here. For a person to be worthy of a prophecy from Hashem, he must be בשמחה – in a state of happiness. If Aharon received a prophecy directly from Hashem right after the loss of his two sons, he must have been in a happy state. This is an amazing feat and is what the Torah wants specifically to teach us. Aharon was at such a high level of closeness with Hashem that he understood that what Hashem did was the very best thing for him, and for the Jewish people, and therefore he was not upset about it. He was completely at peace with what had happened to his two sons and with Hashem.
This lesson is applicable to each of us as well. We know that Hashem is only good and perfect, and that everything He does is perfect and only for the good. He has all the options open to him and can do anything He wishes. If He has decided to bring forth a judgment that is painful to someone, it must be that this pain is necessary for the recipient. One’s best option is to understand that Hashem loves him, and has done this out of love for him.
This is the lesson we learn from Aharon’s silence. This is the correct attitude for a Jew to have when hardships befall him.