1998It is often that Parshat Shemini falls before Pesach, so that our preparations for the holiday often eclipse the difficult passage recounting the death of the sons of Aaron. This year, Yom Hashoah falls during the week of parshat shemini, and the memory of those who suffered the Nazi atrocities is on our minds. The Midrash of Leviticus Rabba tries to make sense of Nadav and Avihu's sudden death. How do they deal with the terse text where God's voice is only a consuming fire? These midrashim try to understand what the "outside fire" was, and they try to understand why the punishment was so severe. Here is an attempt to learn from tragedy with the knowledge that true understanding will certainly be futile.
Making Sense Out of the Senseless
Look at the verses and see what clues the text gives for the death of Nadav and Avihu, and then see how the midrash dissects the text in order to see what it can glean. There are two midrashim which draw inferences from different places in the text. After drawing your own conclusions of why this happened, see how the midrash reckons with this material.
1 Now Aharon's sons, Nadav and Avihu, took each-man his pan, and, placing fire in them, put smoking-incense on it, and brought-near, before the presence of YHWH, outside fire, such as he had not commanded them.
2 And fire went out from the presence of YHWH and consumed them, so that they died, before the presence of YHWH.
3 Moshe said to Aharon: It is what YHWH spoke (about), saying: Through those permitted-near to me, I will be-proven-holy, before all the people, I will be-accorded-honor! Aharon was silent.
4 Now Moshe called Mishael and Eltzafan, the sons of Uzziel uncle of Aharon, and said to them: Come-near, carry your brothers from in front of the Holy-Shrine to beyond the camp.
5 They came-near and carried them, by their tunics, beyond the camp, as Moshe had spoken.
6 Now Moshe said to Aharon and to Elazar and Itamar his sons: Your heads, do not bare, your garments, you are not to tear, so that you do not die and he be furious with the entire community! Your brothers, the entire House of Israel, are to weep over the burning that YHWH caused-to-burn.
7 And from the entrance to the Tent of Appointment, do not go out, lest you die, for the oil of anointing of YHWH (is) upon you! They did according to the word of Moshe.
8 Now YHWH spoke to Aharon, saying:
9 Wine and intoxicant, do not drink, you and your sons with you, when you enter the Tent of Appointment, so that you do not die? a law for the ages, throughout your generations:
10 and so that there be-separation between the holy and the profane, between the tamei and the pure,
11 and so that (you) might instruct the Children of Israel in all the laws that YHWH spoke to them through the hand of Moshe.
Leviticus Rabba 20:8
Bar Kappara in the name of Rabbi Jeremiah ben Eleazar said: Aaron's sons died on account of four things: 1) for drawing near to the holy place, 2) for offering (the incense), 3) for the strange fire, and 4) for not having taken counsel from each other ' For drawing near,' since they entered into the innermost precincts of the sanctuary. 'For offering,' since they offered a sacrifice which they had not been commanded to offer ' For the outside fire ': they brought in fire from the kitchen. ' And for not having taken counsel from each other,' as it says, "...took each-man his pan" (Lev. 10:1), implying that they acted each on his own initiative, not taking counsel from one another.
Rabbi Jeremiah ben Eleazar said: The death of Aaron's sons is mentioned in four places, and in every one of them their offense is also mentioned. Why all this? To inform you that they were guilty of no other iniquity but this one alone.
Rabbi Eleazar of Modin said: Come and observe what concern was felt by the Holy One, at the death of Aaron's sons, or on every occasion when He mentions their death, He also mentions their offense! Why all this? To acquaint you with the facts, so that people might have no pretext for saying that they had been acting corruptly in secret and that it was on account of this that they died.
Leviticus Rabbah 20:9
Rabbi Mani of She'ab, Rabbi Joshua of Siknin, and Rabbi Johanan in the name of Rabbi Levi said: The sons of Aaron died for four things, in connection with each of which death is mentioned.
1) Because they had drunk wine, and in connection with this death is mentioned, as it says, Wine and intoxicant, do not drink, you and your sons with you, when you enter the Tent of Appointment, so that you do not die?(Leviticus 10:9)
2) Because [while officiating] they lacked the prescribed number of garments, and in connection with this death is mentioned, as it says, They are to be on Aharon and on his sons, whenever they come into the Tent of Appointment or whenever they approach the slaughter-site to attend at the Holy-Shrine, that they do not bear iniquity and die. (Exodus 28:43) What did they lack? The robe, in connection with which death is mentioned, as it says, It is to be (put) on Aharon, for attending, that its sound may be heard whenever he comes into the Holy-Shrine before the presence of YHWH, and whenever he goes out, so that he does not die.(Ibid:35)
3) Because they entered the Sanctuary without washing hands and feet; for it says, "they are to wash their hands and their feet, so that they do not die. (Exodus 30:21), and it also says, When they come into the Tent of Appointment they are to wash with water so that they do not die, (ib. 20).
4) Because they had no children, and in connection with this death is mentioned. Thus it is written, Now Nadav and Avihu died before the presence of YHWH, in the Wilderness of Sinai; sons they did not have, (Num. 3:4)
YOUR MIDRASH NAVIGATOR
1. Compare the two midrashim. What is each midrash trying to prove?
2. Do they condemn or are they sympathetic to Nadav and Avihu?
3. What reasons do they come up with for their punishment?
4. How does their reading resonate with your reading of the text?
Prepared by Rabbi Avi Weinstein.