A Terrible Tragedy
Shmini (Leviticus 9-11 )
On the very day that the dedication of the Temple took place, Nadab and Abihu, the two noble sons of Aaron the High Priest, suddenly perished. The Torah describes the reaction of Aaron simply as "vayidom Aharon"1 meaning that Aaron remained silent. The word vayidom usually refers to a domeim, an inanimate object that is incapable of speaking. This teaches us that while we may be able to control our external responses, in our hearts we are often in turmoil, and our facial expressions betray our feelings. Aaron's faith in the justice and compassion of God and in the eternity of the soul was so all encompassing, that even as an inanimate object is silent, he too was silent in his heart. His trust in God was so complete that he found peace in the knowledge that his sons' deaths were the Will of God; thus, vayidom Aharon, Aaron was silent.
Aaron's faith was so powerful that it transcended the generations and speaks to us for all time. Whether we experience personal or national tragedy, we recall and are sustained by Aaron's vayidom. Our faith, even as Aaron's, remains constant.
Consider only those who survived the unspeakable calamity of the Holocaust. We recall our own parents and grandparents: Our grandfather, Rabbi Avraham HaLevi Jungreis, zt"l, who saw his entire family wiped out in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, remained the only surviving son of his noble rabbinic family. Upon arriving on these shores in 1947, he built a yeshivah, saying, "We will rekindle the light of the Torah that the Nazis tried to extinguish." Our father, HaRav Meshulem HaLevi Jungreis, zt"l, saw his entire family perish, but continued their lifework by teaching Torah to new generations of American Jews; and our mother, Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, may she have length of days, founded Hineni at a time when the concept of Jewish outreach was virtually unknown in the world.
This same story was repeated by countless survivors, and today, the Torah academies of the shtetls of Europe are to be found in the United States, England, and Israel. Yes, the faith of Aaron the High Priest has transcended the generations and has infused us with strength and the ability to go on.
The question still remains: Why did this terrible calamity befall Aaron's two sons?
The explanation that the Torah offers is that they (the two sons) "brought before God an alien fire that He had not commanded...."2
The strength of our people, our ability to triumph against all odds, can be found in the fact that we never deviated from the Divine commandments. While Nadab and Abihu were most sincere in their desire to serve God, they nevertheless desired to do so in their own way and bring their own fire rather than the one commanded by our Torah.
Through their tragic deaths, the Torah warns us of the terrible consequences that can result from departing from God's commandments. No matter how lofty our intentions may be, if our service does not conform to God's Will, it is unacceptable. Our God is One, our Torah is One, and our worship must mirror that Oneness. It cannot be based upon our personal needs or emotions. Precisely because our Torah is from God, it reflects His Will and not ours. The Torah is not a set of laws that can be tampered with or altered to suit our desires or to accommodate our weaknesses.
This teaching is of special significance to our generation. In our egalitarian society, we have come to believe that we have the right to fashion our own mode of worship, to contrive our own rituals, and to author our own ceremonies. We have come to believe that our sincerity makes everything right. But if our service does not reflect God's Will, whom are we worshiping? Are we not worshiping ourselves rather than our Heavenly Father? Had our ancestors fashioned their own mode of worship, there would, God forbid, have been no faith for us to inherit. The strength of our people is to be found precisely in the fact that the very same fire that illuminated our souls at Mt. Sinai continues to shed light for us today.
Very often, we encounter people who challenge us, saying, "If you can give me a good reason why I should keep the commandments, I'll consider it." What better reason can there be than that God commanded us to keep them?
- Lev. 10:3.
- Ibid. 10:1.