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The Sons of Aaron: Sinners or Saints?

Shmini (Leviticus 9-11 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

This week's Torah portion begins with the 8th day of celebration of the consecration of the Tabernacle.

First Aaron is called upon to offer a calf as a sin offering, ostensibly to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf.

Then the Community of Israel is called upon to offer a goat offering, leading the Biblical commentators (see Targum Yerushalmi) to point out that the sin offering of the nation was meant to bring about forgiveness for the sale of Joseph. (The brother's of Joseph stained his coat with goat's blood to camouflage his sale into slavery.)

Thus, two major transgressions of the Jewish people were forgiven on this awesome day.

Aaron... descended from the altar where he had offered the sin-offering and the burnt-offering and the peace-offering. And Moses and Aaron went into the Tent of the Meeting and then they went outside and blessed the people, and the glory of God appeared to the entire people. A fire came forth from before God and consumed what was on the altar ... All the people saw and they raised their voices in praise and they fell on their faces. (Leviticus 9:22-24)

The response of the people is clear: God had responded to their prayers, and apparently full forgiveness for their rebellion was achieved.

Tragedy Follows

What happens next can only be described as tragic:

The sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, took a pan, and placed fire within, and put incense upon the fire. They brought before God a strange fire which they had not been commanded to bring. A fire came out from in front of God and consumed them; they died in front of God. Moses said to Aaron, 'This is what God had referred to, "I will be sanctified by those close to me, thus I will be honored by the entire people,"' and Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10:1-3)

Many questions arise as a result of this incident. What was wrong with the behavior of Nadav and Avihu? What motivated them in their strange action? What did Moses mean by his response?

The opinions regarding the actions of the sons of Aaron almost all agree that a sin was committed.

There are many opinions regarding the actions of the sons of Aaron, almost all agreeing that a sin was committed. As to the nature and cause of the sin, the commentaries (based on various Midrashim) differ.

According to one approach, the problem was that the two entered the Sanctuary drunk, evidenced by the section in the Torah which follows this episode – Aaron is warned against entering the Temple to perform service while intoxicated:

And God spoke to Aaron saying, 'Do not drink wine or strong drink, neither you nor your sons when you enter the Tent of Meeting lest you die.' (Leviticus 10:8-9)

The logic is that this is mentioned now, following the deaths of Aaron's sons, because that was their sin. Alternatively we may say that the problem was that the offering of incense was not called for, but it was the drunkenness which caused the error in judgment, resulting in the "strange fire" which was offered.

Other opinions state that it was the fact that they were unmarried, and therefore childless, which led to their deaths.

Rabbi Levi said, "They were conceited, many woman awaited them eagerly (to marry them) but what did they say? 'Our uncle is King, our other uncle is a head of a tribe, our father is High Priest, we are his two assistants. What woman is worthy of us?'" (Midrash Rabbah 20:10)

This source gives a different picture of Nadav and Avihu. They sound quite self absorbed, and it is difficult to imagine such characters being spiritual leaders.

Another source identifies their downfall with their deciding a Torah law in the presence of Moses and Aaron, without asking the opinion of their teacher. This can be seen in the text:

...they brought before God a strange fire which they had not been commanded to bring...

Our first reading would have implied that God had not commanded them, but the Sforno explains that Moses had not commanded them to bring the offering, implying that their sin was in not asking Moses.

Perhaps most sinister of the allegations raised against them is the following passage in the Talmud:

Moses and Aaron were walking along, as Nadav and Avihu were behind them, and all of Israel behind them. Nadav said to Avihu, "When these two elders die, you and I will lead this generation." God said to them "Let's see who buries whom." (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 52a)

The picture which emerges from all of these sources, is of a pair of individuals who allowed their position to get the best of them. The sources essentially agree on that, they only differ as to the specific fault.

The Beginning Of The End

What was the origin of their downfall, the beginning of their end?

The Torah recounts God's instructions to Moses at Mount Sinai in preparation for the giving of the Torah:

To Moses [God] said, 'Ascend to God, you, and Aaron, and Nadav and Avihu, and the seventy elders of Israel, and they shall prostrate themselves from afar ...' Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and the seventy elders arose. They saw the Lord of Israel and beneath His feet, like a brickwork of sapphire ... And to the aristocracy of the Children of Israel, He [God] did not strike His hand. They viewed the Lord, they ate and drank. (Exodus 24:1,9-11)

This enigmatic passage may hold the key to understanding the offense of Nadav and Avihu. They are separated from the rest of the nation, leading them to think of themselves early on, at the time of the giving of the Torah, as future leaders. They are invited to join Moses, and they have a better vantage point than the rest of the nation. The purpose of the ascent is to bow from afar; instead, they stood and stared.

The Midrash contrasts this behavior with that of Moses, when he sees the Burning Bush:

Rav Hoshea Rabba said, "It is good that Moses hid is face. The Holy One blessed be He said, 'I wanted to reveal Myself to you, and you honored Me by covering your face. By your life, when you will be with Me on the mountain for forty days and nights without food or drink, you will take pleasure in the radiance of the Shechinah ...' (Shmot Rabbah 3:1)

The Midrash states that as a result of their exalted position, Nadav and Avihu misused the opportunity, and instead of prostrating themselves, or covering their faces, they viewed the Divinity.

One cannot help but notice that Moses, as a result of covering his face, becomes angelic, needing neither food nor drink. Nadav and Avihu, on the other hand, "viewed the Lord, they ate and drank." Strangely, the result of the ecstatic religious experience is eating and drinking.

Furthermore, the next time we find "eating and drinking" is at the Golden Calf! It may be argued that the source for the destructive behavior manifested at the Golden Calf was modeled upon the behavior of Nadav and Avihu.

The Wine Of Adam And Eve

How could they have allowed themselves to drink again at the dedication ceremony, and then offer the "strange fire"?

The Zohar explains that the wine which was drunk by Nadav and Avihu was the wine which Noah drank, and indeed it was the wine which Adam and Eve drank!

This teaching follows the opinion that the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was actually a grapevine, and the sin of Adam and Eve was partaking of this forbidden wine.

The Leshem, one of the greatest modern day Kabalistic works (written by Rav Shlomo Elyashiv, the grandfather of the famous posek Rav Shalom Yosef Elyashiv), explains that Nadav and Avihu were great religious leaders, and they were trying to bring about forgiveness for the sin of Adam. This is the reason that they used "Adam's grapes." They wished to rectify his sin.

This last explanation allows us to view Nadav and Avihu in a different light. Rather than selfish sinners, they were great spiritualists trying to mend the world.

Let us reconsider their actions on the 8th day of the dedication of the Tabernacle. On this day, the day which represents the metaphysical (the number 8 is one beyond the natural, which is represented by 7), their father is called upon to offer the calf and bring about forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf. The people will offer a goat and bring about forgiveness for the sale of Joseph. Perhaps the only major sin which still needed rectification was the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. If that can be accomplished, a new world awaits.

Adam drank and hid from God; Nadav and Avihu drank after staring at God. When, in the dedication of the Tabernacle, the fire came down and filled the area, the people hid their faces. Nadav and Avihu felt that this generation needed a new approach, one that should have been adopted in the Garden – instead of hiding from God, they confronted God. They offered the fire back to God, but God took them as well.

This, then, may unify all the opinions regarding their sin: they sought a new direction for this generation, as referred to in their speculations about leading the nation. They were infused with the sense of an historic mission which would set the world on a new course, and they therefore had no time or energy to spare for wives or children.

One Sin Only

The Midrash Tanchuma teaches:

In four places the death of the sons of Aaron is mentioned and each time their sin is mentioned with it, in order to teach you that this was their only sin. (Tanchuma Ahare Mot 6:6)

This Midrash supports the opinion that they were not selfish, self-centered sinners. They committed one sin only. This approach enables us to understand the comment of Moses to Aaron immediately following the deaths:

Moses said to Aaron, 'This is what God had referred to, "I will be sanctified by those close to me, thus I will be honored by the entire people."' And Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10:1-3)

Moses describes Nadav and Avihu as those who are close to God. In Rashi's understanding, the inference is to those who were closest to God. Moses tells Aaron that he had thought that either he or Aaron would have to die in the establishment of the Tabernacle but in the end it turned out to be Nadav and Avihu. Rashi quotes a Midrash that Moses then said to Aaron: "And now I see that they were greater than you or I."

Of course there is the possibility that Moses was merely trying to comfort his brother, and his words were meant as a "eulogy." But this would be uncharacteristic for Moses a man of truth. On the other hand, there is a verse in Exodus which is brought to support Moses's explanation:

'I will reveal Myself there to the children of Israel, and be sanctified in My honor.' (Exodus 29:43)

There is a tradition that the text should read "sanctified by those that honor Me," a reference to Nadav and Avihu. According to the Midrash, Moses explains that he knew the dedication of the Tabernacle would necessitate the death of a great person, of one of the leaders. As it turned out, two of the leaders were taken. This is what the text means when it says that they died "in front of God."

Nadav and Avihu died in the proximity of God; their souls were complete.

Fascinating Parallels

There is a mystical teaching known as Sod Ha'Ibur, the phenomenon of a soul entering another body in order to accomplish a great deed. It differs from reincarnation, where a soul needs to be perfected or completed. The Sod Ha'Ibur is where the soul is complete, but the "host" needs a spiritual lift. The Ari taught that Nadav and Avihu entered into the body of Pinchas when he confronted Zimri. (See Book of Numbers 25.)

What is the implication of this teaching? We saw above that one of the reasons listed for their demise was acting without conferring with Moses. Pinchas, too, acted without conferring with Moses, but of course in his case it was the correct thing to do. We are further taught that Pinchas was Elijah, both shared a common soul.

When we analyze the behavior of Elijah we find some interesting parallels with Nadav and Avihu. Arguably, the most famous episode in Elijah's life was the confrontation with the false prophets on Mount Carmel. There Eliyahu offered a sacrifice outside of the Temple, truly a "strange offering." The fire came down from heaven indicating Elijah's victory.

The parallel with Nadav and Avihu and the fire descending from heaven is fascinating, but incomplete: God called for Elijah's offering.

Immediately after the fire descended on Elijah's offering, the masses cried out "God is Lord, God is Lord!" And Elijah said to Ahab, "Go eat and drink." (Kings I, 18:39-41)

Elijah ascended to heaven amid fire – in a chariot of fire pulled by horses of fire (Kings II, 2:11). In Jewish tradition, Elijah became an angel, and visits our homes on every Passover. When he comes in and takes a sip of wine, he is reminding us that redemption will yet come, and that in order to be redeemed we must be forgiven for the sin of Adam and Eve, of drinking the wine from the forbidden grapes. He thus reminds us of the teaching of Nadav and Avihu.

God's original plan was for a partnership in creation with man. When Adam became intoxicated, his creative capacities were debilitated. Nadav and Avihu sought not only to atone for this sin, but to re-establish the partnership. They hoped to turn the clock back to a point before Adam's sin, actively engaging God and reclaiming the human position of power and creativity.

This was Pinchas' position in "defending" God. He became active, independent, and a partner in God's will. Finally, on Mount Carmel, Elijah achieves the most perfect partnership with God and His Will, and, having completed his mission, the mission of Nadav, Avihu and Pinchas, he ascends, complete, to heaven.


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