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Aharon's Silence

Shmini (Leviticus 9-11 )

by Rabbi Ozer Alport

Aharon's incredible reaction to the tragic death of his two sons.

The tremendous joy of the inauguration of the Mishkan was marred by the tragic deaths of Aharon's two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu. The Torah relates that upon learning of their deaths, Aharon remained silent (Leviticus 10:3).

On this verse, there is a perplexing Midrash Pliah. From the Torah's emphasis on Aharon's silence, the Midrash understands that there was something which he wished to say but didn't. What complaint was he holding inside?

The Midrash answers cryptically that Aharon would have argued based on the verse, Leviticus 12:3, "When a woman gives birth to a male child, the baby should be circumcised on the eighth day." What possible connection could this have to the events of our parsha?

Several commentators explain by noting that the Talmud (Niddah 31b) questions why circumcision is performed on the eighth day and not on the seventh day. The Talmud answers that when a woman has a male child, she becomes impure and forbidden to her husband for seven days. If the circumcision was performed on the seventh day, the guests would be rejoicing while the parents, the central figures at the celebration, would still be sad. On the eighth day, the mother has had the opportunity to immerse in a mikvah and become permitted to her husband, allowing them to also enjoy the occasion.

Based on the Talmud's reasoning, we may explain that Aharon was the primary participant in the joy of the inauguration of the Tabernacle, in which he served as Kohen Gadol. After seeing the lengths to which the Torah goes to ensure that the parents are able to be happy at their son's circumcision, Aharon was bothered that he lost two of his children on the day which was supposed to be so dear to him.

Aharon's argument would have been bolstered by Rashi's comment (Exodus 24:10) that Nadav and Avihu should have been killed at Mount Sinai for irreverently indulging in food and drink while gazing at a prophetic revelation of God, but He spared their lives temporarily so as not to mar the joy of the giving of the Torah. Aharon could have easily questioned why he wasn't entitled to enjoy his day like Moshe at Mount Sinai and the parents at a circumcision, but he remained silent and was rewarded for his unquestioning acceptance of God's just ways.

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Rashi writes (Leviticus 10:3) that Moshe told Aharon after the death of his two sons, Nadav and Avihu, that he had known that the Mishkan would be sanctified through the death of somebody close to God, but he had assumed that it would be either himself or Aharon, yet he now recognized that Nadav and Avihu were even greater than them. How is it possible that Nadav and Avihu were greater than Moshe, who was the greatest prophet ever to live, and Aharon, who was equal in greatness to Moshe (Rashi Shemos 6:26)?

Dayan Yisroel Yaakov Fischer answers that there are two types of righteous individuals: those who perfect themselves, and those who also perfect others. Although spending one's time and energy focusing on others comes at the expense of being able to work on one's own self-growth, the Chovos HaLevavos writes that a person who benefits the masses is on a higher overall spiritual level than somebody who singularly focuses on himself.

Even though the latter may in fact attain greater personal perfection than the former, the accrued merits of those whom the former inspires to grow place him on a higher composite level. Moshe assumed that God would choose to sanctify the Mishkan through the deaths of either Aharon or himself, as they were the two greatest spiritual influences on the Jewish people in their generation, but God elected to take Nadav and Avihu, who because they weren't as busy dealing with others were actually able to reach higher personal levels of perfection than Moshe and Aharon.

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Rabbeinu Bechaye writes that the fire which consumed Nadav and Avihu (Leviticus 10:2) was one of 12 fires which descended from Heaven at various times. Six represented Divine satisfaction and came to indicate the acceptance of offerings, and six exacted punishment as an expression of Divine anger. How many of the 12 can you identify?

Rabbeinu Bechaye lists six Heavenly fires which came to accept offerings: the fire which descended to accept the offerings brought during the inauguration of the Tabernacle (Leviticus 9:24), the fire which came to accept Gideon's offerings (Judges 6:21), the fire which came to accept Manoach's offerings (Judges 13:20), the fire which came to accept King David's offerings (1-Chronicles 21:26), the fire which descended to the Holy Temple after Shlomo inaugurated it (2-Chronicles 7:1), and the fire which came to accept Elijah the Prophet's offerings in his dispute against the false prophets (1-Kings 18:38).

The six Heavenly fires of punishment were: the fire which killed Nadav and Avihu (Leviticus 10:2), the fire which punished those who complained against Moshe (Numbers 11:1), the fire which killed Korach and his followers (Numbers 16:35), the fire that killed Iyov's sheep and servants (Job 1:16), and the two fires that were brought by Elijah to punish the two captains of 50 and their men (2-Kings 1:9-12).

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