(Important message: if you’re following Rav Bailey’s current Discovering Text shiur, it is recommended that you postpone reading this Dvar Torah until after the unit is completed)
The section that describes the Yom Kippur service is introduced at the beginning of this parsha with a strange verse:
“And God spoke to Moshe after the deaths of two of Aharon’s sons when they had come before God and were killed.
And God said to Moshe saying: speak to Aharon your brother: don’t ever enter the Holy of Holies…during this one time, however, you can…” (Vayikra 16:1-3)
And the ‘one time’ that Aharon can enter is then described: the service for Yom Kippur.
Why do we need to hear that these instructions were given specifically after Aharon’s sons died? This description is textually three parshiyot after the tragedy; and even if the deaths occurred chronologically immediately before, still, why mention it at all? And even more puzzling, after having stated ‘And God spoke to Moshe’ in the first pasuk, it says, ‘and God said to Moshe’ in the next pasuk. The Torah itself seems to separate this ‘displaced’ introduction from the true focus of the section!
The simple answer is that the significance of the Yom Kippur service can only be most appreciated within the context of the sin –and subsequent death – of Nadav and Avihu. The Torah ‘unnaturally’ introduced this section with the mention of this tragedy to ensure we would recognize the true meaningfulness of the Yom Kippur service which is then subsequently described.
We must therefore return to the original scene in Parshat Shemini to analyze the deaths in its context to then fully appreciate it in this one.
In Vayikra 10:1 the Torah states:
“And the two sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, each took their pan and placed fire upon it; and then they placed incense on it and brought before God an alien fire which was not commanded of them.”
Although there are a myriad of interpretations and explanations as to what they actually brought and why it was deserving of their death, I believe the most satisfying understanding stems from focusing on the fact that the Torah stated both that ‘they brought an alien fire’ and ‘that [it] was not commanded of them’. We are forced to understand that the ‘alien-ness’ of the fire was specifically not due to the fact that it was not commanded of them. What is the meaning of those descriptions in their own right, and why did they both, together, play a role in Nadav and Avihu’s subsequent deaths?
There are two sections of the Torah that are similarly both inordinately detailed and uncharacteristically verbose: the section that describes the Mikdash and all of its vessels and services (and the subsequent building of them), and the one that describes the system of Korbanot. These two have more words and lines spent on them than any other subject in the Torah. The reason is perhaps fairly simple: these two subjects – a temple and its sacrifices – are not uniquely Jewish. Most religions have temples for their gods which house candelabras, feasting tables and altars; most religions have sacrificial rites that serve their respective gods and specialized attendants that assist in that service. So, if our God was going to introduce such a ‘generically’ recognized system, He needed to ensure that it was uniquely Jewish; specifically Hashem’s. Therefore, huge sections of the Torah were spent on describing the Mikdash and Korbanot in order to include every God-specified and God-commanded detail and instruction. The message to God’s uniquely chosen nation, therefore, is very clear: this is My unique temple with My unique service. Any lack of clarity in that message would prove dangerous to the larger lesson He was intending to convey to His nation through the use of His Mikdash and its service.
The final day of an eight-day process – during which a God-unique specific step-by-step procedure was meticulously followed in order to inaugurate this God-unique Mikdash, its Kohanim, and the Korbanot – would therefore have been the most inappropriate time to add in a step that was ‘not commanded to them’ by God. This was the day that the כבוד ה’ was to appear before Bnei Yisrael; so every aspect of this new service being introduced and presented to Bnei Yisrael on this momentous day required the same, common fundamental message: it is all only proper because your God – Who will appear before in all His glory – had said it is so.
Whatever their personal motivations were – positive, reckless, apathetic, spiritually fervent – the two sons of Aharon, as the newly appointed Kohanim, the representatives of this solely God-directed system, needed to reflect that one underlying essential idea; so when they presented an element that was specifically not commanded of them they therefore completely rejected this essential idea.1 When God sends a fire down to kill Nadav and Avihu, it doesn’t say that He got angry – for this wasn’t a ‘personal’ offense against God; rather, because this was a national stage with a critically fashioned Divinely-specific script, the audience could not be allowed to improperly appreciate the message being taught. God needed to ensure that the procedure which dedicated this Mikdash and its service properly reflected the very nature of its inception and subsequent purpose: every detail, law and rule was directly from, and validated by, God. When Nadav and Avihu changed this procedure, therein undermining the entire meaningfulness of this over-arching message, Bnei Yisrael needed to witness first-hand and properly understand the true significant nature of that grave mistake.
In light of all this, however, it seems very strange that the Torah reports that when Aharon also added a step into these inaugurating-day services – right before his sons offered their doomed addition – God actually accepted his seemingly similarly erroneous infraction!
“And Aharon raised up his hands to the nation and blessed them” (9:22)
And we are supposed to make a connection between these two scenes for not only are they placed within just three pesukim of each other, but also the first words of God’s reaction to both actions are exactly the same: ‘וַתֵּ֤צֵא אֵשׁ֙ מִלִּפְנֵ֣י ה’ וַתֹּ֙אכַל…֙’! For Aharon, the fire from before God consumed the Korbanot he had prepared; for Nadav and Avihu, it consumed them! How can it be that when Aharon added a step to the day’s strictly-prescribed proceedings – a ‘not commanded brakhah’ – he was validated for it, but immediately after this, when his sons added their own not commanded step, they were killed for it?!
The answer lies in the other description of the sons’ incorrect action: ‘אש זרה’.2 We mentioned earlier that if the Torah already labeled their offense as ‘one that God had not commanded’, why would we also need to be told that what they presented was a ‘alien fire’ – if it was not commanded, doesn’t that therefore mark it as ‘alien’, i.e. different from what was instructed?
When something is labeled ‘זר’ ‘alien’, it is different than the norm, i.e. there is a ‘normal’ something, and this זר is an abnormal form of that normal thing. So, by the use of the label ‘אש זרה’, we are told that the fire that the two sons brought was an abnormal demonstration of something that was normally brought, and how it was normally preformed, during a Mikdash service.3 So, when Nadav and Avihu presented their fire on this day at that time, while they presented something that was part of an accepted service of the Mikdash, this special time, however, it was specifically not commanded for this service! Aharon, however, added a brakha that wasn’t ever a normal part of any prescribed service! So although he added an ingredient that was not commanded, it wasn’t also an ‘alien’ brakhah. And it is this difference between the two scenes that marks the true gravity of the sons’ capital crimes. When Aharon added his brakha, he wasn’t defying God’s previously prescribed will – for there was never a brakhah that was used elsewhere to then be ‘abnormally’ used here; so, in essence, Aharon was merely enhancing God’s instructed service with a brakha ‘all his own’ – also, a mere declaration of words, not a significant action in its own right. However, when Nadav and Avihu inserted their independent expression, they employed a previously God-specific act, and did it on their own terms! Not only did they reject God’s specific instructions for that day’s programming, they also used something that had precedence in God’s prescribed service – specifically on this unique day, in an immediately preceding stage, as a unique God-validation of an accepted rite!4 They used a similar fire to erroneously validate their own purposes in this situation! So, when they personally and independently introduced this ‘God-recognizable’ action into the proceedings, it was a direct and blatant rejection of the fundamental understanding the Mikdash and its service needed to be founded upon, especially on the day it was to be formally introduced.
In light of this explanation, however, the end of this chapter is terribly puzzling! After the death of Nadav and Avihu and the removal of their bodies, Moshe inquires after the status of the חטאת – the national sin-offering – which was an essential part of the day’s proceedings (the consumption of it by the Kohanim granted atonement for the nation). Moshe is told that the Kohanim had in fact not eaten it as they were commanded and he then understandably challenges the remaining sons of Aharon for their heinous crime! Had they not learned the obvious lesson from their brothers’ similar infraction?! This is a step that was found in the instructed service – this isn’t an enhancing brakhah but a necessary, prescribed step! Isn’t this not the time to be independently deciding to defy a step within the specifically Divinely-instructed program again!?
Aharon steps up and counters his brother’s accusation:
“Behold, today, they brought their sin-offering and their burnt-offering before God…and this is what happened to me. Do you think it is right in the eyes of God that I should have eaten from the sin-offering?”
In other words: Had he not lost enough today? Is it right that on such a tragic day he should be partaking of a festive meal of sanctified meat? Has he had enough sacrifice for one day because of this prescribed service that he should also be required to conclude it with such an inappropriate meal? Would God even desire such an unnatural behavior?!
“And Moshe heard; and it was good in his eyes”
The Torah tells us that Aharon – and even Moshe – understood that there are times when we can only do the best we can in understanding what God truly wants from us. That despite the rules and expectations He has placed before us, there are times when we have to appreciate that perhaps, in extraordinary situations, there is a ‘good in the eyes of God’ we must appreciate and act upon, even if it means adapting the original expectations of adherence. Interesting to note that in this case there was no ‘fire’ from God in reaction to Aharon’s ‘infraction’. God, in fact, did accept Aharon’s independent, honest read and He too understood that there are times when the letter of the law must be adapted to properly exist within a particular situation which nonetheless ultimately achieves the obligatory and expected greater Divine meaningfulness.
And this is why this ‘scene’ is used as a necessary context to the Yom Kippur service in this parsha. God created a fixed, annual schedule of six festivals in our national calendar; one of them was the opportunity for every individual within the entire nation – each and every year – to be cleansed from his or her previous transgressions. God knows and accepts that we can only be expected to do the best we can; He therefore established this festival as a given, a yearly opportunity to address the infractions He knew and accepted we would have. For sometimes, throughout the year, there are extraordinary situations where we honestly believe that what is Right for that moment is not necessarily the strict letter of the law and that God’s will also be expressed and fulfilled through an adaptation of that law. The challenge, of course, is honestly finding the balance, and being able to objectively define – to the best of our abilities – the difference between a flagrant disregard of God’s will (Nadav and Avihu’s אש זרה), a pure, added enhancement of His desires (Aharon’s brakhah), and a different read of a particularly unique circumstance that still reflects an expression of God’s greater expectations of us. Yom Kippur, therefore, is magnanimously granted to us by God for those times when we have done the best we can, but nonetheless erred along the way.
1. Interesting to note, fitting into this theory, the Torah never records what their true motivation was; implying that in fact their subjective motivation specifically wasn’t the cause of the negative consequences – it wasn’t important one way or the other, but rather them merely performing the objective action itself (which was described in two different ways!) was the true issue.
2. Interesting to note, in Shemot 30:6, the Torah had previously warned against a קטורת זרה – this was obviously not the issue in this episode.