In Response to Death

  • Rabbanit Sharon Rimon
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


This parasha series is dedicated
Le-zekher Nishmat HaRabanit Chana bat HaRav Yehuda Zelig zt"l.

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This parasha series is dedicated
in honor of Rabbi Menachem Leibtag and Rabbi Elchanan Samet.

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"In Loving Memory of Rabbi Lawrence J Hordes z"l, dedicated by his family"

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PARASHAT SHEMINI

 

 In Response to Death

By Rabbanit Sharon Rimon

 

The "days of inauguration" of the Mishkan reach their climax on the eighth day.  Following seven days of preparations (described in chapter 8), the kohanim finally commence their performance of the Divine service.  Aharon's special service on this day is meant to bring the Divine Presence to rest in the Mishkan.

 

Aharon performs the entire service just as Moshe commanded him, following which we read:

 

Moshe and Aharon came to the Tent of Meeting, and they emerged and they blessed the people, and God's glory appeared to the entire nation.

And a fire emerged from before God and it consumed, upon the altar, the burnt offering and the fats, and all of the people saw it, and they shouted and fell upon their faces.  (9:23-24)

 

And it is precisely at this auspicious moment that the terrible tragedy occurs – the death of Nadav and Avihu.

 

Many different explanations have been offered for their sin and the reason for their punishment.  In this shiur, we shall not address the cause of or reason for their deaths; instead, we shall turn our attention to the reactions of their close family who witness the terrible event: Moshe and Aharon (as well as Aharon's surviving sons – Elazar and Itamar).

 

The first response that we would expect to find is a cry of shock and anguish.  However, the Torah describes no such reaction.  The first response that the Torah records is that of Moshe, formulated carefully in measured words:

 

Moshe said to Aharon: This is what God spoke about, saying, I shall be sanctified among those who are close to Me, and I shall be glorified before all the people.  (10:3)

 

Before we attempt to understand the meaning of this statement, let us consider Aharon's response to it:

 

And Aharon was silent.

 

Aharon accepts Moshe's words, and holds his peace.  It is possible that prior to this, Aharon wept and cried out at the death of his sons, and that Moshe's words caused him to be silent.  However, the Torah does not describe any shouting on Aharon's part.  It records only the silence with which he accepted the deaths.  Perhaps his silence was an expression of shock.  Perhaps the silence was external, while inwardly his feelings raged and his thoughts ran wild.  However, it may also be that his silence flowed from an inner acceptance of God's judgment.

 

Let us return to Moshe's words and try to make sense of them.  "I shall be sanctified among those who are close to Me, and I shall be glorified before all the people."

 

This statement comprises two assertions.

 

The one is that Nadav and Avihu are counted among "those who are close to Me." In other words, their death came specifically because of their intense proximity to God, and not because of their distance from Him (as we may have assumed, in these circumstances).

 

The second assertion is that their death brings about the "I shall be sanctified" and the "I shall be glorified before all the people." In other words, the death of Aharon's sons has a positive effect: it brings about a sanctification of God's Name in the eyes of the entire nation.

 

Moshe's words offer Aharon a meaningful consolation.  Firstly, Moshe makes no accusations against Aharon's sons; he in no way suggests that they were sinners.[1] On the contrary, he tells Aharon that his sons were close to God.  This is a great comfort.

 

When the son of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai died, his disciples came to comfort him… He said to him: "Iyov had sons and daughters, and they all died on the same day.  He accepted consolation for them; you, too, should accept consolation..." He said to him: "Is it not sufficient that I am sorrowful for myself, that you recall for me the sorrow of Iyov?!"[2]… Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh came in… and said to him: "Let me offer you a parable.  To what may this be compared? To a person to whom the king entrusts a certain deposit.  Each day this man weeps and moans, saying: 'Woe is me! When will I safely be exempted from [responsibility for] this deposit?!' You too, my master, had a son.  He studied Torah – Chumash, the Prophets, the Writings, Mishna, Halakha, Aggada – and he departed from the world free of sin.  You should accept comfort for having returned your deposit whole." He said to him: "Elazar, my son, you have comforted me in the manner that people offer comfort." (Avot de-Rabbi Natan, 14)

 

True consolation lies in showing that the deceased managed to do good during his life, and died as one loved by God.  In addition, Moshe assures Aharon that the deaths of his sons have a most positive result: their deaths are a sanctification of God.  Their deaths are not incidental; they have meaning.

 

This, too, is a great comfort.

 

Moshe's words to Aharon, at this terrible moment, are uttered with great sensitivity, and they succeed in comforting Aharon.  "And Aharon was silent" – not only outwardly, but also inwardly.  He was silent with an acceptance of God's judgment.[3]

 

Thus far we have related to Moshe's words as consolation offered to Aharon.  However, Moshe himself states that his words are actually God's words: "This is what God spoke about, saying, I shall be sanctified among those who are close to Me." What is the meaning of this message? Nowhere in the Torah do we find God uttering these words, nor is there any indication anywhere that such a terrible event will happen.

 

Ramban explains:

 

For God's "word" [includes] His decrees and His thoughts and the matter of His ways; the [term] "speaking" applies to all of these[4]… For here, Moshe says that this incident is what God had decreed, saying to Himself, "I shall be sanctified among those who are close to Me" – that they should not break through to My sanctity, "And I shall be glorified before the entire nation" – that they should show honor to My dwelling place.

 

Ramban explains that indeed there is nowhere in the Torah that God actually utters the words, "I shall be sanctified among those who are close to Me." However, what Moshe is telling Aharon is that the death of his sons is "the word of God" in the sense of a Divine decree.  According to this explanation, Moshe's words are an expression of acceptance of Divine judgment, an acknowledgment that everything proceeds from God.

 

This is yet another element in the consolation: death is God's decree.  Why did God decree thus? In order to teach the nation how, and to what degree, to be cautious in showing honor to the Mishkan.

 

Akeidat Yitzchak offers a similar explanation:

 

For this terrible event itself was the Divine word, through which He spoke to His nation and to His pious ones… (sha'ar 59)

 

According to this view, Moshe tells Aharon that the death of his sons is God's way of conveying a lesson to the nation.

 

However, other commentaries understand the verse as reporting that God had actually told Moshe in advance that something was going to happen.  Rashi (adopting a Midrash) indicates a verse that may be interpreted as hinting to this intention:

 

"This is what God spoke about…" – where did He speak about it? "And I shall meet there with Bnei Yisrael, and it shall be sanctified with My glory" (Shemot 29:43).  Do not read, "bi-khevodi" (with My glory), but rather "bi-mekhubadai" (through those whom I honor).  Moshe said to Aharon: Aharon, my brother, I knew that the Mishkan would be sanctified through those who were close and familiar to God, and I believed that it would be through myself or through you.  Now I see that they [Nadav and Avihu] were greater than myself and you." (Rashi on Vayikra 10:3)

 

According to Rashi's explanation, at the time of the establishment of the Mishkan, in Parashat Tetzaveh, Moshe was already told that "it [the Mishkan] shall be sanctified by My glory (or My honor)" – and these words were a hint that one of the 'honored ones,' one of the people close to God, would die on the day that the Mishkan was finally inaugurated.  However, the simple meaning of "it shall be sanctified through My glory" is different, as Rashi himself explains in Parashat Tetzaveh:

 

"It shall be sanctified" – [this refers to] the Mishkan. 

"Through My glory" – that My Presence will rest in it.  (Rashi on Shemot 29:43)

 

Nevertheless, the simple words may be hinting at something deeper, as Rashi goes on to explain there:

 

And there is a midrash aggada: Do not read "bi-khevodi," but rather "bi-mekhubadim sheli." Here He hinted to him of the death of Aharon's sons on the day of the inauguration, and this is what Moshe referred to in saying (Vayikra 10:3), "This is what God spoke about, saying, I shall be sanctified among those who are close to Me." Where did He 'say' this? [Here, in the words,] "It shall be sanctified with My glory."

 

According to Rashi, then, God had hinted to Moshe that something would happen on the day of the inauguration of the Mishkan.  Moshe had understood the hint, but had not known exactly what was going to happen.

 

Ibn Ezra, too, maintains that Moshe knew that something was already destined to happen.  However, to his view, God's message to Moshe is not to be found in the written text.  Rather, it was conveyed to Moshe privately, and therefore we cannot find any verse to support the prediction.

 

"This is what God spoke about" – God already told me that He would show His holiness through those who were close to Him….  (Ibn Ezra on Vayikra 10:3)

 

According to the explanations of Rashi and Ibn Ezra, Moshe knew in advance that a catastrophe was predestined for the day of the inauguration of the Mishkan.  He did not know exactly what was going to happen, but throughout that day he went about with a sense of foreboding.

 

The Midrash describes this most powerfully:

 

Where the text reads, "He who observes the commandment will know nothing that is evil" (Kohelet 8:5), who is this referring to? [It refers to] Aharon, as it is written: "And you shall not come out from the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days, and you shall remain at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting day and night." Moshe said to Aharon and to his sons: Observe [the customs of] mourning for seven days, so that it will not befall you… they observed [his command], but did not know why they were observing it, as it is written: "He who observes the commandment will know nothing that is evil." "And one with a wise heart knows the time and the manner" (Kohelet 8:5) – this refers to Moshe, to whom God had already said, "And I shall meet there with Bnei Yisrael, and it shall be sanctified with My glory" (Shemot 29): I shall be sanctified there through those whom I honor.

And Moshe performed the service throughout the seven days of inauguration, and was afraid to say it, lest the Divine Attribute of Justice strike him, as it is written: "It shall be sanctified with My glory." And so all he did was to tell Aharon, Observe mourning for seven days.

He said to him: Why?

Moshe replied: So the Holy One, blessed be He, told me, for so I have commanded.  Since they observed the seven days of mourning, when the eighth day came, Nadav and Avihu entered to sacrifice, and the Attribute of Justice struck them and they were burned, as it is written: "And a fire emerged from before God and consumed them and they died before God." Moshe came and said to Aharon: "This is what God spoke about, saying: I shall be sanctified through those who are close to Me." Where did He say this? In the wilderness of Sinai: "I shall meet there with Bnei Yisrael and it shall be sanctified with My glory." And so Moshe tells Aharon: When God told me, "I shall be sanctified through those who are close to Me," I thought that He would strike me or you.  Now I know that they (Nadav and Avihu) are greater than me and you.  "And Aharon was silent" – this was a comfort to him.  Therefore it says, "He who keeps a commandment shall know nothing that it evil."

 

The Midrash describes Moshe as knowing that something is going to happen, and fearing that he himself will be harmed.  Despite his foreboding he continues to perform the service as required, but at the same time he commands Aharon and his sons to observe the customs of mourning, hoping that perhaps this will ward off the impending catastrophe.

 

What is the significance of Moshe's foreknowledge?

 

According to Ibn Ezra, God tells Moshe explicitly (without this message being recorded in the Torah) that His Name will be sanctified through one of the people close to Him.  The question then arises: why is such a shocking and tragic event required in order to show God's holiness?

 

According to Rashi, there was no explicit message; rather, God told Moshe, "It shall be sanctified through My glory (or My honor)," and from this Moshe understood that the Mishkan would be sanctified through the death of one of the people honored by God. 

 

How did Moshe arrive at the conclusion that something would have to happen in order for the Mishkan to be sanctified?

 

Did Nadav and Avihu die because they sinned, or was their death on this day a Divine decree that was necessitated by the circumstances, even if they did not sin?

 

Perhaps the Midrash is telling us that the sin (or mistake) on this day was inevitable.

 

For the first time in history, mortals were building a "house for God" – a material, physical structure in which God's Presence would dwell.  This is not a simple matter.  How can any material substance, and any limited space, house and contain God's Presence? And how can mere mortals withstand the descent of God's glory into their midst, and His Presence among them, within their camp?

 

Moshe understands that a situation of "it shall be sanctified with My glory" cannot and will not come about easily.  He understands that in an event of this magnitude, every detail is critical.  The entire nation must be ready for the Divine Presence.  In particular, the kohanim – who perform the Divine service – must be especially careful with every tiny detail.  At a time of such intense Divine proximity, any small mistake is critical, and may entail disastrous consequences.  It is for this reason that those who are "close to God" face the greatest danger.

 

"It is very tempestuous round about Him" – the way of a mortal is that the fear of him is greater among those who are far than among those who are close by.  But the Holy One, blessed be He, is not so: the fear of Him is greater among those who are close by than among those who are far away, as it is written, "I shall be sanctified among those who are close to Me." (Yalkut Shimoni, Tehillim, 760) 

 

We may perhaps go one step further and suggest that not only is it clear to Moshe that the situation of God's closeness involves danger, but it is clear that there will be some mistake that will lead to catastrophe.

 

Why is this so?

 

On the simplest level, this is necessary in order to teach the nation the proper caution and respect towards God's sanctity.  If everything proceeds smoothly, how will the nation learn to fear the power of God's sanctity? How will they know to what extent they must be cautious?

 

For this reason it was necessary that someone err and die; in this way the entire nation would understand the significance of the Mishkan and its sanctity.

 

In addition, it becomes clear that a sin, or error, on this day was fundamentally inevitable.  The settling of the Divine Presence with such intensity, upon mortal subjects, could not take place without casualties.  Mortal subjects cannot contain the power of sanctity of such an occasion, and therefore it was inevitable that something would break under this weight.[5]

 

Throughout the seven days of initiation, Moshe performs the service meticulously, with a great fear in his heart lest the inevitable error come about through his own actions; lest the sanctity of the Mishkan become manifest through him. 

 

On the eighth day, Aharon performs the service, and the Torah emphasizes that he does so in accordance with all that Moshe has commanded him.  Moshe, meanwhile, observes his performance, filled with dread lest Aharon's service be found imperfect, and the Mishkan be sanctified through him.  However, all goes smoothly, and the Divine Presence indeed descends:

 

And Moshe and Aharon came into the Tent of Meeting, and they emerged and they blessed the people, and God's glory appeared to the entire nation.

And a fire emerged from before God and it consumed, upon the altar, the burnt offering and the fats, and all the people saw it, and they shouted and they fell upon their faces.  (23-24)

 

And it is then – right at that inspired moment – that the error leading to the death of Nadav and Avihu takes place.  The fire that emerges from before God, characterizing the settling of the Divine Presence, consumes those who are close to God, who did something different from what God had commanded.

 

When God is close, His command must be followed precisely.  There is no room for human initiative, arising from human feelings.

 

Following the death of Nadav and Avihu, there are three exchanges that are recorded between Moshe and Aharon.

 

In the first exchange, which we discussed above, Moshe comforts Aharon, telling him that his sons were close to God, and that their death has brought the entire nation to an understanding of the powerful sanctity of the Divine Presence.

 

The second exchange is a command:

 

Moshe said to Aharon and to Elazar and to Itamar, his sons: Do not allow your hair to grow long, nor rend your garments, lest you die and [God's] anger come upon the entire congregation.  And your brethren, the whole house of Israel, will bewail the fire which God has kindled.

And you shall not emerge from the entrance to the Tent of Meeting lest you die, for the oil of Divine anointment is upon you.  And they did as Moshe had spoken.  (10:6-7)

 

Moshe commands Aharon and his sons not to mourn for their sons and brothers.  It is a very harsh command; one that clearly arises from the fear "lest you die" – a fear that has accompanied Moshe throughout the inauguration of the Mishkan.  One disaster has already taken place – Nadav and Avihu are dead.  Moshe warns that there is still a need for great caution.  So long as this intensely spiritual event is taking place, we cannot allow ourselves to halt the Divine service and mourn.  There is no room for human feelings and weaknesses.  The Divine service must continue, and it must be performed flawlessly – for otherwise there may be further deaths.  The intense closeness to the Divine Presence requires that man set his feelings and desires aside, and devote himself completely to the Divine service. 

 

Aharon and his sons accept Moshe's words without opposition, and they do as he commands.  It is therefore surprising to discover the third exchange between Moshe and Aharon:

 

And Moshe diligently sought out the goat for the sin offering, and behold – it had been burnt;

And he was angry at Elazar and at Itamar, the remaining sons of Aharon, saying:

Why did you not eat the sin offering in the holy place, seeing that it is a holy of holies, and [God] has given it to you to bear the transgression of the congregation, to atone for them before God.[6]

Behold, its blood was not brought into the holy place[7]; you should have eaten it in the holy place, as I commanded.  (16-18)

 

Aharon has accepted the Divine judgment; he understands that at this time of close proximity of the Divine Presence he must leave his personal feelings aside and continue to fulfill the instructions meticulously.  However, the text then goes on to tell us that Aharon and his sons have decided, on their own initiative, to introduce a change, and that Moshe is very angry as a result.  His anger is understandable in view of the enormous tension that envelops him on this day.  Moshe understands that even the slightest deviation from God's command is likely to have catastrophic consequences.  After the death of Nadav and Avihu as a result of a slight change, Aharon and his surviving sons should have been even more careful.  Alshikh comments:

 

He [Moshe] was angry at [Aharon's] remaining sons.  As "brands plucked from the fire" they should have been cautious lest they err in some matter of the service, like their brothers.  For once a person is burnt by fire, he should be extremely vigilant afterwards.

 

Yet here we find that Aharon answers Moshe – in contrast to the previous "exchanges" in which Aharon actually remained silent and acquiesced to Moshe's words:

 

Aharon spoke to Moshe: Indeed, this day they have offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before God.  [After] such things have befallen me – had I eaten the sin offering today, would it have been favored in God's eyes? (19)

 

What is Aharon's response to Moshe?

 

According to Rashi, the text is recording a halakhic debate as who whether or not it would have been proper for Aharon and his sons to eat the sin offering while they were in a state of mourning (although unable to observe the customs of mourning).  Moshe insists that all of the Divine service must continue as prescribed, notwithstanding the personal circumstances of the kohanim.  Aharon argues that all of the service prescribed for that particular day of the Mishkan's inauguration must be followed, but when it comes to the sin offering for Rosh Chodesh – which is a fixed law for all generations – there is room to excuse him from eating it in the prescribed manner.

 

According to Ibn Ezra, Aharon and his sons ate a small amount from the offering and then burnt the rest.  Moshe was not aware that they had partaken of it.  As he understands it, what Aharon is telling Moshe is that he ate a quantity of the sin offering that would be favorable in God's eyes.

 

However, if we listen carefully to Aharon's words and try to sense the tone in which they were uttered, this sounds less like a halakhic debate.  Aharon does not offer Moshe an unequivocal, clear response, proposing a logical halakhic explanation for his failure to eat the sin offering.  Instead, his brief response, summing up the events that have just taken place, end in a question mark: "[After] such things have befallen me – had I eaten the sin offering today, would it have been favored in God's eyes?"

 

Aharon is expressing his feeling that it would not be favorable in God's eyes to continue everything as usual.  Admittedly, the sacrifices are offered as commanded, and Aharon and his sons have refrained from adopting any outward signs of mourning, but Aharon feels that there is a limit: the sin offering cannot be eaten in this situation.

 

Why not?

 

Shadal explains:

 

"Indeed, this day they have offered" – I and my four sons offered our sin offering and our burnt offering, to atone for ourselves.  Nevertheless, 'such things have befallen me' – two of my sons died.  This must mean that we are not favored before God.  And if this is so… then how can we atone for the congregation, when we ourselves are despised by God? And had we nevertheless eaten it, imagining that we were still favored before Him and worthy of atoning for the, then 'would it have been favored in God's eyes'? Would He not be even more angry at us for this brazenness?

 

To Shadal's view, Aharon felt that the death of his sons showed that there was some sin attached to him and his sons, for which their offering had not achieved atonement, and therefore he felt unworthy of eating of the sin offering in order to atone for the nation.

 

Rashbam (commenting on verse 19) suggests a different reason for Aharon not eating the sin offering:

 

… In the midst of this [auspicious] greatness, this great tragedy has come upon us.  "[After] such things have befallen me" – how can I eat the sin offering, one of the holy sacrifices prescribed for all generations, on this day where our joy has become soured and mixed?

 

A similar idea is proposed by Korem[8]:

 

Meaning – Notwithstanding that I overcame my sorrow and did not weep, so as to show in public my acceptance of God's judgment, would it be favorable in God's eyes for me to eat the meat of the sin offering with joy and contentment, while my heart was full of anguish and sorrow? For the meat of the sacrifices should properly be eaten with joy and not with mourning.

 

Aharon feels that he cannot eat the meat of the sacrifices in a state of such sorrow.  He continues to perform the service, and shows no outward signs of mourning, but he cannot bring himself to perform an act that so inherently expresses joy.

 

As Nechama Leibowitz explains:

 

If we read these verses as they were uttered, we find that they do not constitute a halakhic debate… but rather a justification that is uttered out of the feelings of his heart on that bitter day….  Although Aharon has accepted upon himself the special prohibition (of the customs of mourning) and has accepted God's judgment, he is not commanded – nor is it expected of him – that he be filled with joy.  For this reason his heart tells him that he need not force himself to eat the sin offering, for the offering is not some magical act… but rather a symbol of the pure thoughts of he who brings it and of he who performs it.  Therefore his heart tells him that he need not force himself to eat the sin offering – [an aspect of the Divine service] which should be done with great joy.

 

We may take this idea a step further.  Not only is Aharon not obligated to eat the sin offering with joy, but we must ask – as Aharon does – whether it would even be favorable in God's eyes for him to do so.  Would God really want Aharon to ignore completely the death of his two sons? There is some significance to their deaths, and if Aharon would pay no attention to it, ignoring the event and its message, and go on to eat the sacrifice with a joyful heart, this would be a distortion that could not be favorable in God's eyes.

 

Rambam (Laws of Fasts, chapter 1) teaches that when some disaster befalls the nation, it is important to understand the reason for it and to repent; not to ignore it.  This is the same message that Aharon conveys to Moshe: despite the fact that the sacrificial service continues, it cannot be that everything continues as usual.  He says this not out of the natural human feelings of a father who cannot "continue as usual" while his dead sons are laid out in front of him, but rather out of a sense of, "would it be favorable in the eyes of God?" It cannot be, he argues, that God wants a person to ignore death.  Death is meant to shock a person, to teach him something.  If he continues his usual routine, as though nothing had happened, then apparently he has not yet internalized the meaning of the death.

 

Moshe's greatness is manifest in his ability to accept Aharon's words:[9]

 

And Moshe heard it, and it was favorable in his eyes.  (20)

 

In the Haftara we read of another event, similar to the one recounted in our parasha.  David decides to bring up the Ark of God's Covenant to Jerusalem, and the text describes the great celebration surrounding the procession.  Then, suddenly, it goes horribly wrong:

 

And they came as far as the threshing floor of Nakhon, and Uzza stretched out to the Ark of God, and he took hold of it, for the oxen shook it.

And God's anger burned against Uzza, and God smote him there for his error, and he died there with the Ark of God.

And David was angered for God having burst out against Uzza, and he called the name of that place Peretz-Uzza, to this day.

And David feared God on that day, and he said: How will the Ark of God come to me?

So David did not move the Ark of God to him, to the city of David, and David carried it off to the house of Oved-Edom, the Gittite.  (II Shmuel 6:10)

 

Here, too, the occasion is a special day, a sort of "inauguration," and here too we find a death of one of the people who "comes close" to God – a death that comes about as a result of coming too close.

 

However, there are also some differences between the two accounts, and these expose some important emphases.

 

Firstly, Nadav and Avihu's action is described in the Torah as a sin: they "sacrificed a strange fire which [God] had not commanded them." From this we learned that in order to draw close to the Divine Presence, it is necessary to perform everything exactly as God has commanded that it be done.

In the case of Uzza, in contrast, there is no mention or hint of sin; perhaps even the opposite: he tries to "save" the Ark of God from falling.  Nevertheless, he is immediately struck dead.[10] From this we learn that excessive closeness to the Divine Presence can kill a person – even in the absence of sin.

 

Another difference concerns the reaction of the spectators.  The reaction of Moshe and Aharon (who themselves are close relatives of the dead!) is one of acceptance of God's judgment.  They continue the daily service as usual, as if nothing had happened. 

 

David cannot accept what has happened - "David was angered." In the wake of this incident he experiences a great fear, and chooses not to continue bringing up the Ark.  Instead, he installs it in the home of Oved-Edom, the Gittite.  The fear of further victims prevents David from bringing the Ark of God up into his capital.

 

This reaction is quite understandable.  If proximity to God demands a standard so high that it is unattainable by mortals, and every instance of intense proximity brings death, then people are likely to fear God's Presence and to avoid it.

 

Moshe teaches us a different perspective.  Moshe knows in advance that God's intense closeness will claim victims.  Nevertheless, he does not refrain from building and inaugurating the Mishkan, and he even performs all of the sacrificial service himself.  Even after his fears prove well founded, and Nadav and Avihu die, he does not halt the ceremony of the inauguration of the Mishkan.  He demands that it continue, with meticulous care taken in every detail.[11]

 

Moshe teaches us that God's Presence is admittedly "dangerous," but we should not willingly forego it.  Rather, we must try our best and do all we can to achieve closeness to God in the proper manner.

 

The power of God's sanctity and its dangers are inseparably bound up with one another.  The great danger arises from the enormous power, and the enormous power may cause danger.  However, if God has commanded that a Mishkan be built, it must be possible for Divine power (on this level) to connect with mortals.  Mortal people who draw close to God in accordance with His instructions, with halakha, are continually ascending in holiness.

 

The connection is the Divine will, and it is one of God's purposes in creating the world and in commanding the construction of the Mishkan.  At the same time, the connection is not a simple matter.  The connection between "mortals hewn of material substances" and Divine sanctity requires a special Divine service; it involves special rules.  Any deviation from these rules is dangerous, but drawing closer in accordance with the rules is truly part of God's will.  It is this that instills man with power and sanctity, raising him up and completing him.

 

Translation by Kaeren Fish



[1] Although it is clear that there was some sin involved here.  The Torah states explicitly that Aharon's sons offered a "strange fire before God, which He had not commanded them." However, this is not Moshe's emphasis.

[2]  The Midrash records other "comforters" who invoke various examples of people who were comforted for the deaths of loved ones.  Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai rejects all of these consolations.

[3]  Bi'ur (Rabbi Naftali Hertz Weisel) comments: "It seems to me that this silence was not only the absence of weeping, but also a matter of acceptance and quiet of the soul… as in 'Be silent for God and wait patiently for him' (Tehillim 37:7)… Likewise, Aharon's heart is quieted from his sorrow, and his soul cleaves to God…."

[4]  Ramban cites several examples proving that the word dibber does not necessarily refer to an utterance, but can also mean a thought, an intention, or a decree: "I myself have spoken (dibbarti) to my heart" (Kohelet 1:16) means, "I had this thought." "And this is the davar that Yehoshua circumcised…" (Yehoshua 5:4) – meaning, this is the reason.  "Because of the davar of the money" (Bereishit 43:18) – meaning, the matter.  Similarly, "Let her be the wife of your master's son, as God has spoken (dibber)" (ibid.  24:51) – meaning, decreed.  And likewise, "With Aviram, his firstborn, he established it, and with Seguv, his youngest, he set up its gates, in accordance with the word (devar) of God, which He spoke (dibber) by the hand of Yehoshua bin Nun" (I Melakhim 16:34)."

[5]  In a similar manner to the primal sins of Bereishit (the sin of Adam and Chava, the sin of the generation of the Flood, and the sin of the Tower of Bavel), all of which arose from man's fundamental inability to exist in an ideal world.  In the same way, and for the same reason, the Revelation at Sinai is followed by the debacle of the Golden Calf.  These events teach us that man is intrinsically incapable of withstanding situations of intense spiritual power, and therefore such occasions are always accompanied by a stumbling, a sin.

[6]  From this verse Chazal deduce that the consumption of the meat of the sin offering by the kohen is itself part of the process of atonement.  Sifra, Shemini parsha 1: "From where do we learn that the eating of the sacrifices brings atonement to Israel? As it is written: "[God] has given it to you to bear the transgression of the congregation, to atone for them before God." How is this so? The kohanim eat, and the owner (of the sacrifice) thereby achieves atonement.

[7] There are two different types of sin offerings: an "internal offering" and an "external offering." In the case of an "internal offering," the blood of the sacrifice is sprinkled upon the golden altar, inside the Sanctuary, and the meat is all burnt.  For an "external offering," the blood is sprinkled upon the copper altar, which stands outside of the Sanctuary, and the meat is eaten by the kohanim.  "The kohen who offers it for a sin shall eat it; it shall be eaten in a holy place, in the courtyard of the Tent of Meeting… And no sin offering whose blood is brought into the Tent of Meeting, to atone [i.e., to be sprinkled] in the holy place, shall be eaten; it shall be burnt with fire.  (Vayikra 6:19-23)

The sin offering of the nation is an "external offering," and therefore the kohanim should have eaten the meat.

[8]  As quoted by Nechama Leibowitz, Iyunim be-Sefer Vayikra, in the section on "Ha-Yitav be-Enei Hashem," p. 116.

[9]  Just as Aharon is ready to accept Moshe's words, as we saw in the two previous exchanges.  The greatness of both of these leaders, and the special relations between them, find expression in their mutual readiness to accept each other's position.  In addition, the description of the inauguration of the Mishkan records their joint efforts for the sake of bringing down the Divine Presence to the Mishkan.

[10]  The commentators explain that his sin lay in his lack of awareness that the Ark could not fall; that it bore itself.

[11]  Eventually, David understands this, too, and brings the Ark up to Jerusalem.