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12.04.2018 20:28    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  shemini  

How Did Nadav and Avihu Sin?

The multiplicity of views regarding the sin Aaron’s sons committed is indicative of a difficulty:  the Torah does not state explicitly wherein they sinned.  Rashi cites two well-known views of the Sages:  “The sons of Aaron died only because they decided a question of law in the presence of Moses their Master,” and “because they entered the Sanctuary inebriated.”  These two views are based on filling in details in the Torah’s narrative.

Shadal presents a slightly different view, based on a close reading of verses in this week’s reading and beyond.  The gist of what he says is that “their sin was one of pride.”  His view does not contradict the opinions cited by Rashi, for deciding a question of halakhah in the presence of one’s master stems from pride, and drinking wine to the point of inebriation (as we know) gives an inflated view of oneself.  The innovation in Shadal’s remarks lies in his analysis of the plain sense of the text.  In examining this story, we shall follow Shadal and add a close analysis of key turns of phrase used in the narrative.

We begin our analysis with the clear parallel between the Lord’s reaction to Aaron’s deed in this story and His reaction to the deed of Aaron’s two sons.  In Chapter 9, Aaron is described as bringing the sacrifices of the eighth day, elevating the offering, and at the end, blessing the people (vv. 1-22).  As a result, “fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar.  And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces” (Lev. 9:24).  The same words introduce the Lord’s response to the “offering” made by Aaron’s sons:  “And fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed them; thus they died before the Lord” (Lev. 10:2).  In both instances fire came forth from before the Lord, but the fire signified that Aaron’s actions had been favorably received, and the act of his sons, perceived as a grave sin.

The root k-r-v as used in describing the seven days of ordination and the eighth day

The above-noted parallel invites us to look at the parallel actions performed by Aaron and his sons, actions that led to such opposite results.  The Torah describes these actions in parallel terms, the key to the parallel actions of father and sons lying in the root, k-r-v.  With the action of Aaron’s sons it says “they offered (va-yakrivu) before the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them” (Lev. 10:1), whereas with Aaron this root recurs many times, but in a different sense.

The way in which Aaron is unique and special is expressed by the use of the root k-r-v from the very beginning of this week’s reading.  There Moses calls “Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel” (Lev. 9:1), but the command to “bring (hakrev) before the Lord” (Lev. 9:2) is addressed only to Aaron.

After the entire community draws nigh (verb k-r-v) and stands before the Lord (Lev. 9:5), Moses again singles out Aaron:  “Come forward (k-r-v) to the altar” (Lev. 9:7).  Aaron does so and slaughters the calf for a sin-offering.  Then the same root recurs, but in another sense:  “Aaron’s sons brought the blood to him (va-yakrivu); he dipped his finger in the blood and put it on the horns of the altar” (Lev. 9:9).

Aaron’s four sons assist their father:  they bring him the blood, but they do not draw close to the altar.  So, too, in the description of the burnt offering (Lev. 12-14), Aaron’s sons “pass” the burnt offering to their father, but by Aaron alone places the burnt offering on the altar.  Aaron’s special status also finds expression in the next few verses:  “Next he brought forward (k­-r-v) the people’s offering…He brought forward (k-­r-v) the burnt offering…He brought forward (k­-r-v) the meal offering…” (Lev. 9:15-17).  For his sons it remained only to help out slightly, bringing him the blood (Lev. 9:18).

Was this role of “assistant” an insult to Aaron’s sons?  Was it not a sufficiently great honor to serve as “supporting actors” and help their father on the great day of dedicating the Tabernacle?  To answer these questions, we must remember that Aaron’s actions on the eighth day were essentially a continuation of his actions and the actions of his sons during the seven days of ordination.  During these days, described at the end of Parashat Tzav, the comparison of Aaron and his sons was one of complete equality, through the use of the root k-r-v.  Thus it was said:  “Then Moses brought Aaron and his sons forward” (va-yakrev; Lev. 8:6).  The sacrifices were offered by Moses, but the laying of hands was done by Aaron and his sons, as a team:

Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the head of the bull of sin offering (Lev. 8:14)

Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the ram’s head (Lev. 8:18)

Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the ram’s head (Lev. 8:22).

The emphasis on father and sons having like status also finds expression in elevating:  “He placed all these on the palms of Aaron and on the palms of his sons, and elevated them as an elevation offering” (Lev. 8:27).  Likewise with the anointing oil:  “And Moses took some of the anointing oil and some of the blood that was on the altar and sprinkled it upon Aaron and upon his vestments, and also upon his sons and upon their vestments.  Thus he consecrated Aaron and his vestments, and also his sons and their vestments” (Lev. 8:30).

The high point of this similar status is described in the concluding verses of Parashat Tzav, which tell us how Aaron and his sons remained overnight in a sort of camp for preparing future priests:  “You shall not go outside the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days, until the day that your period of ordination is completed.  For your ordination will require seven days” (Lev. 8:33).  Aaron and his sons entered a period of preparation together, and it appears that they enjoyed like status.

The sin of Nadav and Avihu

The difference in status of the father as opposed to the sons finds expression only on the eighth day, when Aaron approached the altar, while his sons were only supposed to assist him.  Some of his sons indeed accepted the difference in status that was set for them that day.  However, it appears that Nadav and Avihu did not accept it, and thought that the work of assistant was not sufficient for them.  For the first time in all the eight days described, they themselves did the task of making an offering:

Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered (va-yakrivu) before the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them (Lev. 10:1).

On this Shadal remarks:

They did not mean to be making the morning incense offering, for if so, why two incense pans?  Rather, they offered incense which the Lord had not commanded, and their sin was because of pride, for it did not suffice for them to be their father’s assistants, as it is written (Lev. 9:12):  “Aaron’s sons brought the blood to him.”  They sought to show that they, too, were priests of the Lord, like Aaron; and since Moses had not commanded them to perform any individual worship, they chose for themselves a precious mode of worship and offered alien fire before the Lord.[1]

Why did Aaron’s sons specifically choose to offer incense?

The difference in status between a regular priest and the high priest finds expression particularly in the matter of incense, and precisely by means of this task Nadav and Avihu expressed their desire to “draw near” to the altar.  The special character of the incense is evident already in Parashat Tetzaveh.  The incense altar does not appear in Parashat Terumah along with all the other furnishings of the Tabernacle.  The commands to build the Tabernacle and its furnishings appear in the weekly readings of Terumah and Tetzaveh, and come to a climax towards the end of Tetzaveh:  “I will sanctify the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and I will consecrate Aaron and his sons to serve Me as priests.  I will abide among the Israelites, and I will be their G‑d” (Ex. 29:44-45).

These verses emphasize the sanctity of “Aaron and his sons,” as do the preceding verses, in which Moses was commanded to ordain “Aaron and his sons” over the course of seven days (Ex. 29:35).  There it also says that the special sacral vestments of Aaron “shall pass on to his sons after him” (Ex. 29:29), a detail which emphasizes the similarity between sons and father.

Only after this high point, describing the Lord’s “dwelling” among the Israelites, do we come to a description of the incense altar and of the worship associated with it, which was uniquely reserved to Aaron alone:  “On it Aaron shall burn aromatic incense:  he shall burn it every morning when he tends the lamps…Once a year Aaron shall perform purification upon its horns” (Ex. 30:7-10).  The description of the incense altar comes after the climactic verses because therein lies the key to what set the ground for the great fall of Aaron’s two sons.

From closeness to sanctity

After this great fall, Leviticus shifts its focus to another direction.  From the beginning of the book until the act of Aaron’s two sons, the emphasis is on drawing close to the Lord and sacrificial worship; from the deed of Aaron’s sons onward, Leviticus puts the emphasis on sanctity, kedushah, or setting apart.  This is evident from the end of this week’s reading (Lev. 11:44-47), in the commandment to refrain from eating certain foods, and in the chapters that follow, in which the Torah commands us to set ourselves apart by not entering certain sexual relationships.

Both of these are central areas in Maimonides’ section on Holiness, in his Mishneh Torah; and they are areas that have to do with the ego.  Part of the idea of sanctity is that people must know how to restrict their ego, know their place in the world, both in relationship to other human beings and in relationship to their Maker.  From the act of Aaron’s son on, for several weekly readings, the Torah commands us that drawing close to the Lord does not suffice; rather, one must place limits on one’s hubris, on the desire to reach higher and higher. The act of Aaron’s sons serves as a warning against attempting to draw close to the Lord without the aspect of limiting oneself, an aspect that pertains to sanctity.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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