Acharei Mot: After the Death of Aharon’s Two Sons

Sharon Brand is coordinator of the “Etrog” Beit Midrash program at OTS’s Neveh Channah High School

%D7%A9%D7%A8%D7%95%D7%9F %D7%91%D7%A8%D7%A0%D7%93The portion of Acharei Mot commences with the mention of the passing of Aharon’s two sons. Why?

One might offer insight into this question through the lens of Aharon’s personal journey. A father who mourns the loss of his two sons carries with him a profound tragedy that becomes interwoven into the fabric of his existence, shaping the narrative of his life. It is from this juncture that his path diverges, where he continues to navigate, act, and serve the Almighty, even as he steps into the innermost sanctity and faces the presence of the Divine.

Alternatively, one can address the question within a broader societal and national framework. The death of Aharon’s sons on the very day of the Tabernacle’s dedication was a traumatic event, affecting all those seeking to come closer to the Divine Sanctity.  In turn, there arises a pressing need for a thorough examination of the ways one has to go about approaching Divine Sanctity in general, and particularly in the context of the service of Yom Kippur.

The enigma surrounding the passing of Aharon’s two sons captivated the minds of our Sages, prompting them to offer diverse interpretations of the events and to contemplate the reasons behind the Divine fire that consumed them.

The first response dismisses the notion of sin. Nadav and Avihu did not sin, and it was precisely their greatness of character that led to their demise.  As the Midrash says:

“Aharon was standing, and he marveled: ‘Woe unto me that such a transgression has come through me and through my sons bringing us to this point!’ Moshe entered to appease him, and said unto him thus: ‘Aharon my brother, it was declared to me [from God] at Sinai: ‘I am destined to sanctify this House; and I shall be sanctified through a great man.’ I assumed – either through me or through you the House would be sanctified. Now it has been clarified that your sons are greater than both you and me, since it is through them that the House has been sanctified” (Sifra on Shemini, Parsha 1:23).

This interpretation attempts to maintain Nadav and Avihu’s integrity even in their death, thus preserving their memory. However, the Torah itself cries out loud and clear: Nadav and Avihu sinned!

The second explanation, however, examines the wording of the Scriptures to find answers.  Three possible sins present themselves:

“And Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in them, and laid incense on them; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them” (Vayikra 10:1; also mentioned in Bamidbar 3:4 and 26:61)

It is possible that they offered literal alien fire – i.e., fire from the profane; or else that they offered sacred fire from the Sanctuary, albeit without being commanded to do so (this is the dispute between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael in Sifra 32).

In another context, the Torah seems to suggest a different sin altogether – not the sin of sacrifice but the sin of inappropriate proximity to the Divine:

“After the death of Aharon’s two sons, as they came near before the Lord, and they died.” From what follows it can be inferred that their sin was in their approaching the Divine presence physically when they were not commanded to do so. Therefore: ‘And the Lord said to Moshe: Speak to Aharon, your brother, that he not come at all times into the holy place within the veil before the cover that is upon the ark’ (Vayikra 16:1-2, and see Sifra ibid. 2, ‘Rabbi Akiva says: They died because of their coming near, not because of their offering'”).

While the explicit sins of uncalled-for offering and proximity to the Divine are delineated, other sins are implied indirectly from the verses. After the death of Nadav and Avihu, the remaining Kohanim are warned: ‘Let not the hair of your heads go loose, neither rend your clothes, so that you die not’ (Vayikra 10:6); ‘Do not drink wine or strong drink, you, nor your sons with you, when you go into the Tent of Meeting, lest you die’ (ibid. 10). From the overall warning for the future, one can learn about the punishment rendered in the past: Nadav and Avihu died either because they were intoxicated with wine or because they were unkempt.” (Vayikra Rabbah, Parsha 20:9, and more)

The third explanation diverges from its predecessors. It neither absolves the righteous of fault nor hinges on a sin explicitly mentioned in the Scriptures, be it directly or indirectly:

“Rabbi Levi said: They were arrogant. Many women were sitting unmarried, waiting for them. What would they say? ‘Our father’s brother is king, our mother’s brother is a prince, our father is the High Priest, and we are the two deputy priests; what woman is worthy of us?’ Rabbi Menaḥama said in the name of Rabi Yehoshua ben Neḥemya: Hence we learn that when Moshe and Aharon were walking ahead, Nadav and Avihu were walking behind them, and all of Israel behind the latter. And thus they [Nadav and Avihu] said to each other: ‘When will these two old men [Moshe and Aharon] die, and we will assert authority over the public?’”  (Vayikra Rabbah 10)

Why did the Sages attribute the sin of arrogance and haughtiness to Nadav and Avihu?

The Sages interpreted various Biblical passages, not merely within their isolated context but rather within the broader scope of the Biblical narrative. Such expansive interpretation, especially concerning the transgression of Nadav and Avihu, imbues the sin with additional layers of significance.

Three individuals mentioned in the Bible dared to offer incense despite lacking the priestly status. Their actions posed a direct challenge to the established priesthood and conveyed a political message: “We are the High Priests.”

The most prominent among them was King Uzziah: “But when he had become powerful, his heart grew so proud that he acted corruptly, and he was unfaithful to the Lord his God, for he entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense” (Divrei Hayamim II, 26). Preceding him was king Yerov’am, the father of Nadav (Melachim I, 15:25), and Aviyah (ibid. 14:1). After constructing an altar in Bet-El and appointing non-priests to serve there, he arrogated the crown of priesthood for himself, using incense (Melachim I, 12:33–13:6). The third individual, and most prominent of the three, was Korach (Bamidbar 16:4–35).

Korach also sought priesthood (to which he was not entitled), and the test of priesthood for him and his assembly was the offering of incense. Korach’s fate, like that of his predecessors Nadav and Avihu, was thereby sealed. Concerning the former, it is written: “Fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them” (Vayikra 10:2).  Similarly, of Korach it is said: “And fire came out from the Lord and consumed those offering the incense” (Bamidbar 16:35). If the punishment is similar, perhaps the sin, too, is alike. It could therefore be inferred that Nadav and Avihu’s sin was the sin of pride, as they sought for themselves Kehuna Gedola prematurely:

“They were arrogant…. And thus they [Nadav and Avihu] said to each other: ‘When will these two old men [Moshe and Aharon] die, and we will assert authority over the public?’” 

They who had sought authority for themselves by wishing for the untimely death of others, died an untimely death void of all authority.

In our quest for clarity, much like our Sages, we grapple with interpreting the events, both personal as well as national, that unfold before us. I do not presume to offer interpretations or explanations for the recent tragedies that have befallen us – the massacre and the ensuing war. Instead, drawing from the wisdom of our Sages, I share what resonates with me regarding the current events: the sin of hubris. There is leadership which may harbor good intentions but lacks humility; leaders who are unaware of their limitations risk bringing calamity upon their people.

Let us pray and hope that we will find the wisdom to learn from these trials, to mend what is broken, and to uphold and fulfill the will of the Lord with humility and a deep reverence for Him

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