Shiur #20: Opposites Attract

  • Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan

With this class we will fast-forward to Vayikra Rabba Parasha 20. This section deals with Chapter 16 of Vayikra, the beginning of what we know as Parashat Acharei Mot. Whereas the previous texts we have studied dealt with the Tabernacle and the details of the sacrifices, this section deals with a unit of Biblical narrative: the death of Aharon’s sons in the Tabernacle, which is referred to in the first verse of Vayikra 16. This Parasha includes midrashic interpretations of many Biblical stories and presents us with an opportunity to study the rabbis’ approach to Biblical narrative.


Vayikra Rabba 20 begins, as we might expect, with a petichta. The petichta verse comes from Kohelet 9:2:


All things come alike to all;

there is one event to the righteous and to the wicked;

to the good and to the pure and to the impure;

to him that sacrifices and to him that sacrifices not;

as is the good, so is the sinner,

and he that swears, as he that fears an oath


This verse is typical of Kohelet’s dark worldview. It notes that all mortals face the same fate: death. It matters not whether one is good or evil, whether one filled one’s life with acts of loving-kindness or with acts of malice - every human life ends in death. This verse would appear to deny, or at least ignore, the possibility of post-mortem reward and punishment. Normally, we would expect the rabbis to moderate or even reverse such a dark and potentially heretical verse.  Instead, this petichta elucidates and even magnifies the theme of the verse. Each stage of the verse is connected to a pair of biblical figures, one righteous, the other wicked, who share the same fate. The implication appears to be that there is no justice in this world. Our ultimate fate is not determined by our deeds.


The petichta begins:


R. Shimon opened his discourse with the text

All things come alike to all; there is one event to the righteous and to the wicked” (Eccl. 9:2).


To the righteous” applies to Noach, of whom it says, “A man righteous” (Gen. 6:9).

R. Yochanan observed in the name of R. Eliezer, the son of R. Yose the Galilean: When Noach left the ark a lion struck and maimed him so that he was unfit to offer sacrifices, and Shem his son offered them in his stead.


And to the wicked” applies to Pharaoh Nekho.

When he sought to sit upon the throne of Solomon he did not know its workings,

so a lion struck him and maimed him.

The former [Noach] died a lame man and the latter [Pharaoh Nekho] died a lame man.

This explains the text, “There is one event to the righteous and to the wicked.”


The midrash identifies the first figure in the petichta verse, the “righteous” person, with Noach. This is hardly surprising; Noach is one of the few figures in the Bible who is explicitly described as being a tzaddik, a righteous person.  The midrash then goes on to tell a story about Noach that would hardly be apparent to the reader of the Biblical text. According to the midrash, upon leaving the ark Noach was attacked by a lion, who clawed his leg. Noach gained a permanent limp, which disqualified him from offering sacrifices.


Some readers may recall this story from Rashi’s commentary on Bereishit 7:23, which quotes the Midrash Tanchuma: “All existence on earth was blotted out…. Only Noach was left, and those with him in the ark.” This midrash explains the phrase akh No’ach, which I have translated as “Only Noach.” Literally, this phrase translates as “even Noach,” suggesting that Noach, too, was in some way destroyed in the flood. This story explains how even Noach did not escape the flood unscathed.


However, there is one small difference between Rashi and the Tanchuma’s version and the one in Vayikra Rabba. In the Tanchuma version, Noach is not attacked as he leaves the ark; rather, the lion attacks him because he is late bringing the lion his food. This suggests that there was a reason for the attack. One could even see it as “punishment” for a “sin.” The Vayikra Rabba version has no place for this detail because, as we shall see, it is important to the midrash there to portray this attack as totally unjustified. Hence, the lion’s attack is portrayed as completely unprovoked and Noach as blameless.


Next, the midrash introduces a story about a far more obscure Biblical figure, Pharaoh Nekho. Pharaoh Nekho’s deeds are described in II Kings 23:31-37. At the end of the period of the Judean Monarchy, Pharaoh Nekho marched on Jerusalem. He deposed the king, Yeho’achaz and replaced him with Yehoyakim and imposed a heavy tribute of silver and gold on the people of Judah.


The midrash here tells a story about Pharaoh Nekho, about how he sought to sit on King Solomon’s throne and was attacked by a lion. What was this throne and how did an attempt to sit on it lead to an attack from a lion? The details of this story can only be filled in from later midrashim which describe Solomon’s wondrous throne. Below are quotes from Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews, the classic twentieth century compilation of aggadic traditions:


Next to the Temple in its magnificence is the throne of Solomon… On each of its six steps were two golden lions and two golden eagles, a lion and eagle to the left and a lion and eagle to the right… The royal seat was at the top, which was round… On the first step leading to the seat crouched an ox, and opposite him a lion; on the second a wolf and a lamb, on the third a leopard and a goat, on the fourth perched an eagle and a peacock; on the fifth a falcon and a cock; and on the sixth a hawk and a sparrow; all made of gold. At the very top rested a dove, her claws upon a hawk, to betoken that the time would come when all peoples and nations shall be delivered into the hands of Israel… when Solomon set foot upon the first step to ascend to his seat, its machinery was put into motion. The golden ox arose and led him to the second step and there passed him over to the care of the beasts guarding it, and so he was conducted from step to step to step the sixth where the eagles received him and placed him upon his seat. As soon as he was seated, a great eagle set the royal crown upon his head. Thereupon a huge snake rolled itself against the machinery, forcing the lions and eagles upwards untill they encircled the head of the king. A golden dove flew down from a pillar, took the sacred scroll out of a casket, and gave it to the king, so that he might obey the injunction of the Scriptures, to have the law with him and read therein all the days of his life. (Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, vol. 4, pp.157-59)


We can now understand our midrash. The throne of Solomon was a mechanical device on which mechanized animals performed all sorts of wonders. When Pharaoh Nekho attempted to ascend to the throne, he was attacked by one of the mechanical lions, leaving him crippled. It is worth noting that while the printed editions that we have quoted say that Pharaoh Nekho “did not know [the throne’s] ways,” the manuscripts state that he “did not know [the throne’s] mechanism” explicating the mechanical nature of the throne.


Why do the rabbis tell this story about this most obscure of biblical figures? They probably understood the name Nekho as deriving from the word nekheh, which means crippled. This story comes to explain how this Pharaoh became crippled and thus acquired his name.


The midrash thus compares two biblical figures both of whom were injured in the leg by a lion. This fate appears to have nothing to do with these individual’s deeds. One of them was righteous and the other evil, yet they suffered the same fate. This illustrates how there is no reward and punishment for our deeds in this world.


The Midrash now moves on to the next part of the petichta verse and the next comparison of biblical personalities:


To the good and to the pure and to the impure” (Eccl. loc. cit.).

To the good” applies to Moses, of whom it says,

“And when she saw him that he was good” (Ex. 2:2).

He was, said R. Meir, born circumcised.

And to the pure” applies to Aharon, who was engaged in the purification of Israel;

as it says, “He walked with Me in peace and uprightness, and did turn many away from iniquity” (Mal. 2:6).

And to the impure” applies to the spies.

The former [Moses and Aharon] spoke in praise of the Land of Israel

while the latter [the spies] spoke derogatorily of it,

yet as the former did not enter it so did the latter not enter it.

Hence it is written, “To the good and to the pure and to the impure.”


First, the midrash identifies the “good” in the verse with Moshe, who was in fact identified as “good” by his parents as soon as he was born. How did his parents identify this goodness in a newborn baby? R. Meir explains that he was born circumcised. Throughout rabbinic literature, being born circumcised is a sign of a person’s moral and spiritual perfection. When Moshe’s parents saw that he was born without a foreskin they knew that he was “good.”


The midrash then identifies the word “pure” in the verse with Aharon. As the midrash explains, Aharon was involved with the purification of Israel. We would have thought that this “purification” refers to ritual purity and impurity, perhaps in particular, the rite of the red heifer, in which priests are needed for individual Jews to become pure. However, the prooftext cited is from Malakhi. As we noted in a previous class, Malakhi’s description of the priests de-emphasizes their cultic role in favor of their position as teachers and judges. Thus, here the purity in question refers not to ritual purity but to returning people from sin.


Finally, the midrash identifies the “impure” in the verse with the spies who investigate the Land of Israel and come back with a negative report. The midrash thus compares two groups from the same generation, Moshe and Aharon, and the spies, noting that they all suffer the same fate - they die in the wilderness without ever entering the Land of Israel. The midrash does not mention the fact the Moshe and Aharon also sinned and were punished with not being allowed into the land. This would undermine the midrash’s agenda of painting the completely righteous as suffering the same fate as the wicked.


Next, the midrash compares two kings who suffered the same fate:


To him that sacrifices” (Eccl. loc. cit.)

applies to Josiah, of whom it says,

“And Josiah gave to the children of the people, of the flock, lambs and kids” (II Chron. 35:7).

And to him that sacrifices not” (Eccl. loc. cit.)

applies to Ahab who abolished sacrifices, as is borne out by the text,

“And Ahab killed sheep and oxen for him in abundance” (II Chron. 18:2),

which implies that he killed them for him, but not as sacrifices.

The former [Josiah] died by arrows and the latter [Ahab] died by arrows.

Hence it is written, “To him that sacrifices and to him that sacrifices not.”


Here the midrash contrasts and compares Josiah, King of Judah with Ahab, King of Israel. The difference between the two is that one sacrificed and one did not. That Josiah sacrificed is clear. The verse cited comes from the description of the massive Passover sacrifice that Josiah organized. Ahab’s status as a non-sacrificer is less clear. The verse cited to support this contention actually describes Ahab slaughtering sheep and oxen. It seems to me that the midrash’s primary argument is from silence. Nowhere is Ahab unequivocally depicted as offering sacrifices to God. However, there is one verse in Chronicles which could be interpreted as describing Ahab as offering sacrifices. The verb zavach can mean either “to sacrifice” or, more generally, “to slaughter.” The midrash here comes to tell us that in this verse the word should be translated as “slaughtered.” Since the verse emphasizes that these animals were slaughtered on account of King Yehoshaphat of Judah, it is clear that these animals were not consecrated to God, but were merely the main dish at a state dinner in honor of the monarch from the south.


Both Josiah and Ahab die at the hands of archers. It is possible that dying at the hands of archers was considered a less honorable death than dying by the sword.


Josiah was killed at Megiddo in battle with Pharaoh Nekho and his armies (II Chronicles 35:23). Perhaps, not coincidentally, this is the same Pharaoh Nekho mentioned earlier who was attacked by the mechanical lion. Ahab died in battle against the King of Aram at Ramot Gil’ad (II Chronicles 18:33 - note that in neither instance is the detail of death by arrows mentioned in the Book of Kings).


This is perhaps the most powerful argument against reward and punishment in this world that the midrash has brought thus far. Josiah was the quintessential good king while Ahab was the quintessential bad king. Yet they both died in the same manner. It is thus most difficult to argue that either of their deaths were just punishments for their deeds.


The next section similarly compares a good king with a bad king:


           “As is the good, so is the sinner,” (Eccl. loc. cit.).

As is the good”: ‘good’ applies to David, in regard to whom it says,

“And he sent, and brought him... and good looking” (I Sam. 16:12).

He was, said R. Isaac, ’Goodly to look upon’ as regards legal lore;

everyone who looked upon him recollected his learning.

So is the sinner,”

namely Nebuchadnezzar, of whom it says,

“Break off your sins by almsgiving” (Dan. I4:24).

The former [David] built the Temple and reigned forty years,

while the latter destroyed the Temple and reigned forty years.

Thus we have explained, “There is one event to the righteous” etc.


As in the case of Moshe, the midrash seeks a textual proof for its contention that David was “good.” It finds this in the verse, “he was ruddy cheeked, bright eyed and good looking” (I Sam. 16:12). However the midrash does not leave it at that. It goes on to interpret the phrase tov ro’i, “good looking.” As if often the case in midrashic interpretations, especially with regard to King David, the midrash here transforms the text into one that deals with the study of Torah. The midrash offers two explanations. The first is a little cryptic. It simply states, “In halakha.” In all likelihood it means that David illuminated and elucidated the halakha. This reading is explicit in the parallel passage in Midrash Hagadol, an important midrashic collection which was edited in Yemen. The other possibility sticks closer to the text. How was David “good to look at”? The Midrash argues that this is not a description of David’s beauty. Rather it refers to the fact that when a person looked at David, he immediately remembered all of his Torah learning.


In contrast, the “sinner” of the verse refers to Nebuchadnezzar. Though no proof is needed to establish Nebuchadnezzar’s wickedness, the midrash nevertheless cites a verse from Daniel in which Daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar to repent his sins.


The line comparing Nebuchadnezzar and David contains two significant inaccuracies. Most glaringly, David did not build the Temple. He did, of course, desire to build the Temple and laid the ground work for it by purchasing the Temple Mount. Also Nebuchadnezzar ruled for forty-five years, not forty. In both cases, the midrash has fudged things slightly in order to create an exact equivalence between David and Nebuchadnezzar.


In the next section the midrash treats yet another figure from the end of the first Temple era, King Tzidkiya:


And he that swears” (Eccl. loc. cit.)

applies to Tzidkiya, of whom it says,

“And he also rebelled against King Nebuchadnezzar” (II Chron. 36:13).

As he that fears an oath” (Eccl. loc. cit.) applies to Samson, as is proved by the text, “And Samson said unto them: Swear unto me, that you will not fall upon me yourselves (Judges 15:12).

The former died after having his eyes put out -

“And put out the eyes of Tzidkiya” (II Kings 25:7) -

and the latter died after having his eyes put out -

“And the Philistines laid hold on him, and put out his eyes” (Judges 16:21).

Hence it is written, “There is one event... he that swears, as he that fears an oath.”


Tzidkiya is identified with “the one who swears” of the petichta verse. This is on the basis of the fact that the verse in Chronicles notes that Tzidkiya swore an oath of loyalty to Nebuchadnezzar which he then broke by rebelling.  Since the verse contrasts “the one who swears” with “he that fears an oath” the midrash seems to be assuming that “the one who swears” does NOT fear the oath and is therefore willing to break it.  Samson, in contrast, is identified with the one who fears the oath. The verse cited as proof of this tells how he had the men of Judah take an oath not to kill him.  Samson is so serious about oath-taking that he entrusts himself to the men of Judah based on their word, given in oath, that they would not harm him.  Yet these two, one who scorns oaths and one who fears them, both suffer the same fate of having their eyes gouged out at the end of their lives.


Finally, the midrash comes to the parasha verse,


Another exposition is that the text, “There is one event to the righteous,” applies to the sons of Aharon,

of whom it is written, “He walked with Me in peace and uprightness” (Mal. 2:6),

and “To the wicked” applies to the company of Korach,

in regard to whom it is written,

“Depart, I pray you, from the tents of these wicked men, etc.” (Num. 16:26).

The latter entered the Tabernacle to offer in a spirit of contentiousness and ended by being burnt,

while the former entered to offer without contentiousness, and ended by being burnt.


We should note that the midrash does not actually cite the parasha verse, making this an “imperfect” petichta. In either event, this section is the first of many efforts in parasha 20 to make sense of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu.  In this interpretation they are completely blameless. They are identified as the “righteous” of the petichta verse. In contrast to the evil followers of Korach, their offers of sacrifices were not part of a fractious dispute. Nevertheless, both the followers of Korach and the sons of Aharon were burned to death by God.


The implication here is that there is no justification for God’s killing of Nadav and Avihu. They did nothing wrong, yet they met the same fate as Korach’s followers. Once again, God’s justice in this world is brought into question. Here it is God’s direct interventions in the world that are accused of being unjust. This theme will be both developed and challenged as the parasha continues.