The Deepest Response of Love
Why Aaron was silent in the wake of his sons' death.
Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L.
Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
All Israel is a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6). Some among them are priests of priests. At the top of the priestly pyramid stands Aaron, the kohein gadol (high priest). The kohein gadol is vested with considerable power and responsibility. Though everything is new--and no models exist for him to follow--Aaron carries out his role with great competency and dignity as he offers up the first sacrifices to God.
In Parashat Sh'mini, we find ourselves with Aaron and his family at an exhilarating moment. It is the climactic eighth day of dedication of the Tabernacle.
Exultant and joyful, Aaron and his sons bless the people--and the glory of God appears before all. A fire of heavenly origin consumes the sacrifices in their entirety; the people fall on their faces in awe and love of God. Aaron's joy must surely be overflowing.
Suddenly, the scene turns into heartbreak. Though not commanded to do so, Nadab and Abihu, Aaron's elder sons, put incense into pans and bring it as an offering. Instantly, a fire of God leaps out and consumes them. Aaron is devastated. These two sons were outstanding young men: they were deemed worthy of ascending Mt. Sinai in a most prestigious order—after Moses and Aaron, and before the 70 elders—and worthy of participating in the festive meal at which God's face was shown (Exodus 24:1, 9-11).
Crime and Punishment?
What could have happened? We struggle to understand. Was this a punishment from God, or a random accident? What crime could they have committed that was so heinous as to warrant death by flash fire? Perhaps they were acting out of enthusiasm and desire to serve. Perhaps they were overcome simply by the pure joy of being in the presence of God-and wished only to increase awe in the hearts of the people. And even if they were guilty of not following God's word to the last, did not their father Aaron have credit in the storehouse of good deeds? Was there not some milder punishment that could have been meted out on the scale, such as that meted out to other miscreants in the Torah?
Yet despite the fact that they performed everything else properly and created a glorious Tabernacle celebration, despite their father's merit or their own, they are swiftly cut down.
When I was growing up, my high school Torah teacher, Mar Yerushalmi, communicated unequivocally to his students that Nadab and Abihu were punished for the grave sin of eating in the place where they should not have. Whenever a student would be caught chewing gum in class as we studied Torah with Rashi's commentary, Yerushalmi would remind her of Nadab and Abihu.
On the one hand, this devout teacher was implying that the sons were guilty and deserved what they got; on the other, likening their crime to a teenager's act of chewing gum in the wrong setting was his way of subtly suggesting to a class of impressionable teenagers that he, too, felt the punishment did not fit the crime.
The Torah narrative teaches us that Moses struggles with the same issue, trying to find an explanation. He wants to offer consolation to his beloved brother and closest friend, yet he takes care not to betray his responsibility as the leader who must teach the people to follow God's law. "This is what Adonai meant by saying, 'Through those near to Me I show Myself holy'" (10:3). Moses' delicate message to the people and his only consolation to Aaron is that this was not a random act but a sentence decreed on those closest to God, who are thus held to a higher standard.