> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > What's Bothering Rashi?

A Fire Came Forth

Shmini (Leviticus 9-11 )

by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek

This week's parsha tells of the dedication of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) by Aaron and the tragedy of the sudden death of two of his sons, Nadav and Avihu, when they brought an offering not requested of them.

Rashi chooses the Midrash to fit the verses.

Leviticus 10:1-2

"And the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan and they put fire in them and placed incense on it and they brought near before Hashem a foreign fire which He had not commanded them. And a fire came forth from before Hashem and consumed them, and they died before Hashem."



And a fire came forth - RASHI: Rabbi Eliezer says: The sons of Aaron died only because they rendered an Halachic decision in the presence of their teacher, Moses. Rabbi Yishmael says: [They died because] they entered the Sanctuary while intoxicated with wine. You can know that this is so, because after their death [God] warned the survivors not to enter the Sanctuary while intoxicated by wine (see this chapter, verses 8-11). This may be compared to a king who had a faithful member of his household etc., as it is found in Vayikra Rabbah.

Rashi gives us two possible reasons for the sudden deaths of Nadav and Avihu. What questions would you ask on this comment?

Your Questions:



A Question: Rashi supplies us with reasons for the death of Aaron's sons, but the Torah itself says "and they brought before Hashem, a strange fire which He commanded them not." This would seem to be the reason for their deaths. Why does Rashi need to suggest other reasons?

You may remember other instances in the Torah where Rashi offers reasons for events when the Torah itself had already stated a reason. See, for example, Rashi's comments on the case of Jethro's coming to meet Moses (Exodus 18:1) and on the naming of Reuben (Genesis 29:32). In each case, Rashi offers reasons other than those which the Torah itself gives. His comment alerts us to closely search the words of the Torah to discover subtleties which prompted Rashi's comment.

Can you find the reason for Rashi's comment here? What's bothering Rashi?

Your Answer:



An Answer: An explanation for the need for additional reasons for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu may be that they had done something apparently quite positive. They brought a voluntary offering to God. Why should they be punished - and with such a severe punishment - for a well-intentioned act?

With this in mind, how does Rashi's comment deal with this difficulty in the verse?

Your Answer:



An Answer: Rashi's comment is meant to explain how the sin of these men was deserving of the death penalty. Bringing the strange fire was an unintentional transgression; but deciding the law in Moses' presence was an intentional act which flaunted the chain of authority in Halachic matters. Also entering the Tabernacle in an intoxicated state is a flagrant violation of the decorum of such a holy place. The death penalty, harsh as it was, can more easily be appreciated with the additional reasons that Rashi offers us.



On what basis do you think that Rabbi Eliezer concluded that their sin was deciding the Halacha without consulting Moses?

Hint: Look carefully at the verse.

Your Answer:



An Answer: The Torah says "Hashem had not commanded them to bring." The extra word "them" implies that Hashem had commanded to bring this fire, but had not commanded them to do so. If so Moses, the Lawgiver, would have to decide who should be the one to bring this fire. But they brought it without being commanded. The fact that they did bring the fire shows that they decided to do so without consulting the leading authority of the generation (of all generations, for that matter!): Moses,their teacher.

See above 1:7 (Parshat Vayikra) where it says that sons of Aaron are to put fire on the altar. There Rashi notes "Even though fire would come down from heaven, it was nevertheless a mitzvah for 'profane' fire to be brought [by the priests]." So it seems that Nadav and Avihu weren't doing anything wrong. However, since Moses had not ordered them to be the ones to bring this fire, they had acted out of turn.



The reason for Rabbi Yishmael's interpretation is clear. Rashi himself says that the fact that immediately after this tragedy, God commanded Aaron not to enter the Sanctuary intoxicated by wine, would indicate that intoxication was the reason for Nadav and Avihu's deaths, as the parable points out.

But you should have a question on this interpretation of Rabbi Yishmael.

Your Question:



A Question: If God only forbade entering the Sanctuary in a state of intoxication after the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, why were they punished? At the time they entered the Sanctuary intoxicated, there was as yet no prohibition.

Your Answer:



An Answer: Common sense and common decency would dictate - even without a divine edict - that one should not enter such a holy place while under the influence of wine. They should have understood this themselves. They are no less responsible for their behavior just because they were not told explicitly of this prohibition. However, once God saw that they could ignore this elementary act of decency, He found it necessary to make the law explicit and abundantly clear. So afterwards He made a formal declaration to Aaron of the laws of decorum when serving in the Sanctuary.



Rashi here cites two Midrashic interpretations for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. But those familiar with Rashi throughout the Torah may recall that in other places he has given other reasons for their deaths.

See Exodus 24:9 on the words, "They saw the God of Israel." Rashi says, "They looked and peeked and were guilty of death. But [God] did not want to dilute the joy of receiving the Torah, so he waited [to punish] Nadav and Avihu until the day of the dedication of the Tabernacle.

See also Leviticus 10:12 on the words, "Elazar and Itamar, his remaining sons." Rashi says, "[Those who survived] death. This teaches us that they too were to have been punished by death for the sin of the Golden Calf."

And see Leviticus 16:1 on the words, "And Hashem spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron." Rashi says, "Rabbi Eliezer son of Azariah suggested a parable: of a sick man whom the doctor visited etc.... Therefore it says 'after the deaths of the two sons of Aaron.' "

The reference is to the Torah's words, "after the death of the two sons of Aaron when they came near to Hashem and they died." Rabbi Eliezer son of Azariah thus concludes that they died because they "came near to Hashem."

We see that in different places in his Torah commentary Rashi has offered five different reasons for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. Why does he cite so many different and contradictory reasons? And if he does find the need to cite them, why does he cite one reason in one place and in another place he cites another reason? How are we to understand this?

Can you explain it?

Your Answer:



This example teaches us an important lesson about Rashi's use of Midrashim. Many Midrashim exist; many, many more than Rashi cites, as he himself tells us in his famous programmatic statement in Genesis 3:8. But Rashi cites only those Midrashim that have relevance to the particular verse upon which he is commenting. Rashi selects the Midrashic explanation that best fits in with the particular context within which their deaths are mentioned. In our case, he cites two opinions for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu.

It is important to point out that Rashi drew the first opinion, that of Rabbi Eliezer, from the Midrash Vayikra Rabbah, while Rabbi Yishmael's opinion comes from the Midrash Toras Cohanim; two separate sources. We see that Rashi quite purposefully sought out those Midrashim that fit his purpose. Can you see why he chose just these two reasons here and not any of the others?

Your Answer:



An Answer: If we analyze the two opinions given here, we see that they both are based on, and have ties with, the immediate surrounding context of this verse. The first opinion, that of Rabbi Eliezer, is that they died because they decided a point of law on their own. Which law? That of bringing their own fire into the Tabernacle. This point is connected with the verse immediately before our verse. There it says, "A fire went out from before Hashem and consumed [the offering on the altar]." Did you notice that our verse closely parallels that verse by saying, "And a fire went out from before Hashem and consumed them"? Their bringing the fire without Moses' consent was their fatal mistake.

The second opinion, that of Rabbi Yishmael, is clearly based on the verse that comes after this incident, as Rashi says - the laws prohibiting imbibing alcoholic beverages before serving in the Tabernacle.

So Rashi has chosen just those Midrashim that have an anchor in the context of our verse. On the other hand, the sins of the Golden Calf, of staring at God or the prohibition of entering the Holy of Holies are not mentioned here. Rashi thus does not draw on those other Midrashim here to enlighten us as to Nadav and Avihu's sin.



Lest the student ask: But which is the truth? Which is the real reason for their deaths? He must understand that Midrash Aggadah is not Midrash Halacha. In the realm of Halacha we can end up with only one final decisive conclusion. The world of Midrash Aggadah is different. The Midrash exists to teach us a lesson, either moral, ethical or religious. Many lessons can be learned from any one incident. So too in our case - many lessons can be learned from the tragic deaths of such righteous individuals as Nadav and Avihu. This is what the Sages are doing when they suggest the different sins of these men. And this, too, is what Rashi is doing when he cites them, albeit in different places and in different contexts.



When Rashi cites a Midrash which seems to contradict what the Torah itself has said, there is cause for reflection and deeper analysis. And when Rashi chooses a particular Midrash from among many, he has a reason for doing so.



At the end of this comment Rashi cites a parable about a king and the faithful member of his household. Then Rashi does a very strange thing - he leaves off without telling us the parable! One could ask: If the parable could be helpful in understanding the verse, why not quote the whole parable? And if it would not significantly enlighten us, why mention it all? This is not the only instance of Rashi teasing us by quoting only the first few words of a parable without finishing it. Why?

This is not easy to understand. Shmuel Gelbard (author of Liphshuto Shel Rashi) has suggested that Rashi did this intentionally in order to whet the student's appetite and entice him to look up the source for himself. In this way Rashi would encourage the student to become more independent in his learning. The student would open up the Midrash and maybe find other things of interest. Rashi would then be acting as a true teacher, making himself dispensable, as the student explored new areas on his own.


Shabbat Shalom,
Avigdor Bonchek


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