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Holy Physics

Shmini (Leviticus 9-11 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

This week's Torah portion Shmini confronts us with the attribute of Divine justice in its harshest and most unforgiving aspect – the phenomenon of the death of the righteous.

Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, who are presented by the Talmud (Sanhedrin, 52a) as the most worthy replacements of Moses and Aaron in the entire Congregation of Israel, are consumed by a fire of God while engaged in an act of Divine service. It is the final day of the eight-day celebration marking the inauguration of the Tabernacle, and the incident pierces the bubble of Israel's national joy at its very maximum point of inflation.

In describing their deaths, Moses speaks the following words of consolation to his brother Aaron their father:

Of this did God speak, saying; "I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me, thus I will be honored before the entire people..." (Leviticus 10:3)

This the Talmud (Zevochim 116b) interprets to signify: God had earlier informed Moses that His Tabernacle would have to be sanctified by the deaths of those nearest to Him. Moses had thought that he and Aaron would have to die to accomplish this act of sanctification, as he had thought that they were the nearest to God. When he saw that it was Nadav and Avihu whose lives were taken on the inauguration day, he realized that in certain respects they must have been even nearer to God than he and Aaron. Thus he was consoling Aaron by informing him how precious his children must have been in God's eyes for them to have merited being selected for this act of sanctification.

Why do we continue to live on peacefully while the attribute of Divine justice strikes down the holiest?

The Talmud goes on to explain how this sanctification of God's name is brought about by the deaths of the tzadikim. When God carries out His judgment against the righteous, His Name becomes more awesome because the average Jew says to himself, if this could happen to such holy people, who clearly deserve such harsh treatment far less than the rest of us, how much more must we all be deserving of even harsher treatment. The fact that we continue to live on peacefully while the attribute of Divine justice strikes down the holiest is only due to God's attribute of mercy.

The Midrash (Tanchuma, Achrei Mos 10) presents the next step in the application of this same thought. Why does the Torah describe the deaths of the sons of Aaron in connection to the laws of the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16)? To teach us that just as the Day of Atonement was given to us so that we can be cleansed of our sins, the deaths of the righteous also atone for our sins and mend the damaged relationship between the Jewish people and Israel. Indeed, the Zohar (Vol 2, 56a) suggests that that is why we read this portion of the Torah on the Day of Atonement; the deaths of Nadav and Avihu help to atone for Jewish sins down to the very present.

How can we relate to this idea? How can we understand that the death or suffering of the righteous can atone for our shortcomings? Is there any sense to this?


Unfortunately, I address this topic of the death of the righteous not from the calmness and distance afforded by philosophical or historical perspective, but from the traumatic shock that was the aftermath of a public tragedy. Nadav and Avihu lived very long ago, but two days before Passover several years ago, I attended the funeral of Rabbi Shimshon Pincus, his wife and his child whose lives had been snuffed out in a tragic car accident.

Rabbi Pincus was 56. He and his wife were both people who lived only for others without any thought for themselves. Rabbi Pincus' holy fire had helped to ignite the spark of holiness dormant in many Jewish hearts. His own life and that of his wife were dedicated entirely to acts of kindness and teaching.

Rabbi Weintraub, the teacher of Rabbi Pincus, caused a statement to be issued at the funeral informing the public that Shimshon Pincus, the private individual had ceased to exist many years earlier, because for the last decades of his life, Rabbi Pincus existed only for the public. All his life decisions were made as though he were a living personification of the Jewish people.

The inner storm caused by his tragic and untimely death provides the background of this essay.


The key to unraveling the Torah's approach to the phenomenon of the death of the righteous begins with another statement of Moses to Aaron.

Moses said to Aaron and to his sons Elazar and Ithamar, "Do not leave your heads unshorn and do not rend your garments that you do not die and He become wrathful with the entire assembly; and your brethren the entire House of Israel shall bewail the conflagration that God ignited." (Leviticus 10:6)

Moses is saying here that the deaths of Nadav and Avihu are not to be regarded as private tragedies. If they are treated as such, if Nadav and Avihu are mourned primarily by their family, as is the usual custom, this will provoke God's anger against the entire Jewish people. The Jewish people must understand that these deaths were primarily a national calamity that they suffered as a people, and therefore they must be mourned as such. The entire nation must go into mourning.

The failure to come to this recognition renders their deaths futile. They did not deserve to die as private individuals, they died only as members of the community whose deaths were suffered for the sake of others. If the community appreciates this and takes it to heart, and consequently experiences a spiritual awakening, then their deaths were not in vain. But if Aaron and his sons are allowed to mourn them as though this were their own private tragedy, the community is held responsible for their very deaths. Rendering the tragedy they experienced futile is tantamount to taking their lives.


The closest metaphor that comes to mind to help explain all these ideas comes from the field of education. First let us consider a phenomenon that is familiar to all of us. However uncomfortable we may be with the idea, we all know that some universities are superior to others. Someone with a degree from Oxford or Harvard is regarded differently than someone who received his education in the University of Manchester or Kansas. Although there is no doubt some correspondence between superior levels of I.Q. and highly regarded Ivy League universities, this perceived difference in the value of the education received has little to do with the levels of raw intelligence, and is far more attributable to the different "cultures" prevailing at these institutions of learning.

The more established Ivy League universities tend to have the better professors and the more ambitious and motivated students. The courses tend to be on a higher level and the greater intellectual demands tend to bring out more of the scholastic potential inherent in their student bodies. Although the level of overall intellectual capacity is not much different than in less hallowed institutions of higher learning, the level of achievement tends to be higher. Even a gifted student will tend to accomplish more if he attends an Ivy League university than he would by attending his local city college. There is a "culture" of excellence that pressures everyone in the prestigious Ivy League university to achieve his utmost.

It is easy to see how this "culture" of excellence could be squandered in a relatively short period.

It is easy to see how this "culture" of excellence could be squandered in a relatively short period. If retiring faculty members were replaced by more mediocre people, and if its student body were selected without regard to potential excellence, and if degrees were offered in basket weaving and the like, the best Ivy League university would rapidly lose its cutting edge and reputation, and drop to the level of its less illustrious sisters in Academia. Excellence is not a self-perpetuating phenomenon. You have to work at maintaining it.

Now let us move on to an educational metaphor that may be less familiar to many readers, the Jewish institution of higher learning known as the Yeshiva. The Yeshiva has to accomplish what every university has to accomplish and much more besides. Not only does it have to transmit the body of Jewish knowledge and culture to the next generation of Jews, the Yeshiva is also the primary mechanism for the formation of the deep personal bond with God necessary to carry the student through an entire life of holiness, as well as providing a well spring of inspiration for his eventual descendants. The Yeshiva must be able to transmit a powerful sense of the sanctity of the Jewish people and its unique bond with God along with the knowledge of Torah, so that a familiarity with holiness becomes part of the furniture of the souls of its students.

An atmosphere of holy tension is just as essential a component of the successful Yeshiva as the culture of intellectual excellence. If the "culture" of intellectual excellence is itself difficult to maintain, just imagine the complication of keeping it fresh and vigorous while at the same time developing and maintaining a spirit of holy tension.

The university tends to stay out of its students personal lives and has little interest in their relationships or moral standards. In fact, a focus on these matters would hamper the free interchange of ideas that is the foundation of the spirit of intellectual excellence that pervades the atmosphere. But the Yeshiva cannot afford to ignore the private aspects of its students' lives. The atmosphere of holiness that must be maintained within the Yeshiva's halls is extremely fragile and delicate, and it takes the highest standards of moral and religious behavior to maintain it.

Yeshivas often have to resort to dramatic gestures, such as expulsion of certain students, in order to maintain the atmosphere of holiness without which they cannot function.


Let us imagine the following theoretical scenario. A group of new students, used to the looser, tension-free atmosphere of the mostly secular world they are coming from, goes to town and spends the evening in a bar where some of the students become quite rowdy. While this is perfectly understandable behavior given their backgrounds, and while they are all nice boys from decent families who would no doubt adjust to the spirit of holiness in time, such behavior cannot be ignored by the Yeshiva administration. The boys would adjust to the spirit of holiness only if the Yeshiva were able to maintain it during their period of adjustment, but such behavior is precisely what shatters the atmosphere of holiness for everyone in the Yeshiva.

The group of unruly students bring the atmosphere of the pub back with them to the Yeshiva, and until the spiritual fog this atmosphere introduces is dispelled, the clear light of holiness generally available in the Yeshiva to inspire its students is dimmed, regardless of their individual state of readiness to assimilate to a holy atmosphere. Just as in the case of the weather, the prevailing spiritual temperature is shared by all. When this happens some action must be taken. Some student or sometimes a number of students have to be expelled. When they leave, the poisoned air of the street leaves with them.

Expulsion of a student is always difficult. Whom do you pick?

Selection is always difficult. If expulsion is absolutely necessary, it is obviously preferable to expel as few as possible. So whom do you pick? Do you send away the student who has the most potential and is among the stronger in the first year group, who was probably not a ringleader in the expedition in any case, or do you send away the weaker student who has the greater tendency to rowdiness, and who might have been the one who dreamed up the unfortunate episode in the first place?

You usually expel the best student. Why?

As the object is the restoration of the atmosphere of holiness, it most often turns out that for the benefit of everyone the most logical course of behavior is to expel the student you would least want to expel. It is his expulsion that makes the greatest impact on the student body and has the greatest effect in terms of restoring the necessary holy tension that must be present in order for the Yeshiva to benefit anyone. If you make an example of him, generally the expulsion of a single student will suffice. He is also the most likely to be able to find another place without considerable difficulty, and in the long run is likely to make the most complete spiritual recovery.


Bearing this metaphor in mind, we are ready to look once again at the death of the righteous. When God withdraws or "expels" the righteous, He is not sending a message to the non-believer. The non-believer will regard the phenomenon as yet another justification for his rejection of the concept of Divine Providence. The message in this act of expulsion is clearly addressed directly to the believer who knows that he is witnessing an act of God.

In fact, God is attacking the spirit of complacency. The House of Israel, to which Moses refers, is similar in many respects to the Yeshiva of our metaphor. It also must maintain a spirit of holy tension in order to function. When the Tabernacle is inaugurated, there is a great danger that spiritual complacency will be an unintended by-product of this new familiarity with God. The tendency is to think: "We Jews must really be all right. After all, we are so holy that God Himself feels comfortable inhabiting one of the tents of our encampment."

In fact, the "tragic flaws" in Nadav and Avihu that are pointed out by the rabbis as being responsible for their deaths all stem from a feeling of complacency:

  1. They decided on matters of Torah law in the presence of their teacher Moses. (Talmud, Eruvin 63a) Without consulting him, they ruled that it was permissible to bring a private fire offering into the Holy of Holies. Had Nadav and Avihu entertained any doubts as to the correctness of their opinion, they certainly would have asked Moses what the law was. Their failure to do so is indicative of an unacceptable degree of cockiness.
  2. They went into the Holy of Holies after having drunk wine. (Leviticus Raba, 12:1) No one implies that they were drunk. The inauguration day was a holiday. On a Jewish holiday it is the custom to eat meat and drink some wine along with the meals to help foster a joyful atmosphere. Their offering of incense in the Holy of Holies was an expression of the overflow of their joy. This also indicates excess familiarity. The Holy of Holies can only be approached with an abundance of awe.
  3. The very act of unauthorized entry described by the verse itself implies an overabundance of familiarity:

    The sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire pan, they put fire in them and placed incense upon it; and they brought before God an alien fire that He had not commanded them. (Leviticus 10:1)

This feeling of being too familiar with God found in the hearts of the most righteous is no doubt indicative of a general attitude of complacency in the House of Israel. The Tabernacle was not meant to lessen the spiritual tension necessary for spiritual growth, but to foster the very opposite, an atmosphere of sanctity into the Jewish encampment. Thus, in light of the spirit of complacency prevailing in the encampment, no one was able to accomplish what God had intended.

In other words, "the Yeshiva of Israel" was not functioning. Under the circumstances someone had to be expelled to restore the proper atmosphere. Again, the rule is always to accomplish the task with the expulsion of the smallest numbers and yet with the maximum effect. Only the righteous will serve.


Judaism maintains that life in this world is only a means to an end. We are here to accomplish, this is not our place of reward. For some of us this idea is little more than lip service. For others it is an intellectual construct that makes sense, but does not penetrate to the level of feelings. For people of the stature of Nadav and Avihu, it is as elementary as the sunrise.

By submitting to their "expulsion" from the Yeshiva of life, they established the proper atmosphere of dynamic tension that was required to render the Tabernacle (and the Temples that later replaced it) fully spiritually operational. It is through them that the Tabernacle became properly sanctified. With their deaths they constructed the House of God for the House of Israel. They went out in a blaze of glory.

The death of Rabbi Pincus was meant to shake us believers in Divine Providence out of our sense of complacency.

By analogy, the death of Rabbi Pincus, his wife and his daughter, their "expulsion" from this life, was also to shake us believers in Divine Providence out of our sense of complacency. Surely, we are not doing enough spiritually to justify our continued existence. The holy tension that is so crucial to the maintenance of the proper relationship with God must be lacking in the House of Israel.

But how can it be beneficial to remove the very people who instill the fire of holiness into the soul of the Jewish people if this is indeed what is lacking?

The answer: the House of Israel is one inseparable body. When the atmosphere of striving towards spiritual heights is replaced by a general feeling of complacency, no one can function properly. Someone has to volunteer to re-establish the sanctity of the Tabernacle. Who could be more suitable to die for Israel than Rabbi Pincus who lived only for it?

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