Parshat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Efrat, Israel‘And when Moses heard [Aaron’s argument] it found favor in his eyes’ (Leviticus 10:19).

Our biblical portion opens with the exalting and exultant ceremonies of the consecration of the desert sanctuary, closely followed by a description of the tragic death of Aaron’s two eldest sons. These events lead to a fascinating halachic discussion between Moses and Aaron which has important ramifications for our religious attitudes today.

The sin-offering of the New Moon was brought on the first day of Nisan, which was also the eighth day of the consecration, the banner day on which the sanctuary stood erect and completed. It was also the day of the tragic death of Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu. After seeing to the removal of their bodies, Moses immediately inquired after the meat of the New Moon offering. Hearing that it had been burned rather than consumed by Aaron and his two remaining children, he “became angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, the remaining sons of Aaron. Why did you not eat the sin offering in the sacred area? After all, it is the holy of the holies, and it was given to you [to eat] so that you might bear the sin of the congregation, and bring them forgiveness before the Lord” (Lev. 10:16, 17).

Aaron countered, “Behold this day they [Eleazer and Ithamar] have brought their sin offering and whole-burned offering before the Lord, and then such [tragic things] have befallen us; had I eaten the [New Moon] sin offering today, would it have been pleasing in the eyes of the Lord?” (ibid 19).

Moses and Aaron both understood that despite the great loss of his sons Nadab and Abihu, the High Priest and his remaining sons must continue to fulfill their priestly duties, especially during this period of consecration. Their mourning must go on in silence (“And Aaron was silent” 10:3) and their public functions must continue uninterrupted. Despite their personal sorrow, they are public servants whose service to the nation must continue unabated.

And so Moses commands them: “Do not dishevel [the hair on] your heads and do not tear your garments lest you die and anger strikes the entire community… You must not go outside the entrance to the Tent of Meeting lest you die, for the Lord’s anointing oil is upon you” (Lev. 10:6, 7). They cannot ritually defile themselves by attending a funeral or a burial; they cannot express any outward signs of mourning. They must remain within the sanctuary, and see to the proper functioning of the ritual.

Moses understood that the divine law, which prohibited them from outward mourning and demanded that they continue to officiate in the sanctuary, included not only the requirement of bringing the sacrifices, but also their consumption. Hence, when Moses sees that although they offered the New Moon offering, they burned the meat instead of eating it, he becomes angry with them. He chides the remaining sons, so as not to embarrass his elder brother, but his displeasure is directed at all three.

Aaron responds forthrightly and even a bit sharply (the verb vayedaber is used to refer to strong and even harsh speech), insisting that they brought all of the commanded sacrifices that day, thereby fulfilling all their obligations. However, he reminds his brother that their family was also struck by an unspeakable tragedy that day. Would God who took the two boys have approved of their father and brothers demonstrating all the requisite rejoicing engendered by eating a sacrifice from “the table of the most high,” in the fellowship of the divine? Moses himself referred to the boys as “those near to God, through whom God is to be sanctified” (10:3).

Aaron contends that although in the face of tragedy, we must continue performing our official duties, we cannot be expected to celebrate with God as well. “And Moses heard, and [Aaron’s words] were pleasing in his eyes.” Rashi cites the midrash “Moses accepted Aaron’s argument, and was not ashamed to say that indeed, he had not received a divine directive compelling the mourning high priest to partake of the sacrificial meal” (Lev. 10:19, 20, Rashi ad loc). Aaron’s argument that the law also takes into account human feelings and emotions is accepted.

Perhaps it is on this basis that my revered teacher Rav Soloveitchik was wont to explain the halachot of an onen (one whose parent, sibling, child or spouse has died, during the period between death and burial). He suggested that such a person is forbidden to perform the commandments (pray, make blessings before eating, etc.); not only because “one who is occupied with a mitzva (in this case, burying the dead) is not obligated to perform another mitzva at the same time,” but also because God gives the mourner an opportunity to be angry at Him. God removes from him the obligation to serve Him with the usual commandments when he has been struck by the death of a close and beloved relative in a world which is not yet redeemed.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!

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