This Week in Torah
Our Torah portion this week is Parshat Shemini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47. In it we learn of a very strange event. The begins with Aaron and his sons beginning to fulfill their roles as . Moses instructs them on how to go about making a “sin offering” and a “burnt offering” to God on the altar. Aaron, with the help of his sons, is careful to prepare these offerings in the way that is commanded. When he finishes making these offerings, we learn that the “glory of God” appears to all the people of Israel – a fire issues forth from God, consuming the offerings on the altar. Upon seeing this, everyone sings praises and falls on their faces with joy.
Two individuals, however, are perhaps too excited about the Divine Presence that has come to dwell in the Sanctuary … and this is when the very strange and unexpected event occurs. Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Abihu, put incense into their fire pans and offer a strange fire before God, which God had not commanded of them. Immediately, a fire issues forth from the altar, and, just like the burnt offerings before them, the two young men are consumed; Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Abihu, are dead.
This raises a number of questions. The two young men were just doing as God had asked – certainly they had good intentions. So, why did they have to die? Even stranger, after the tragic event, we hear that Aaron was silent; he hardly reacts to the death of his sons. Why did this happen?
There are several explanations. According to the text, the two died because they offered frankincense in the temple – and this had not been specifically asked for by God. But does that really warrant them being killed?
According to Rashi, their offense was aggravated by having done it without first consulting with their teacher, Moses, and because they did it after having drunk too much wine. Perhaps their death was a lesson for the Israelites never to enter the Sanctuary or perform sacrifices while in a state of intoxication.
According to Rashi following Exodus Chapter 29 verse 43, God was actually honored by the strange offering of Nadav and Abihu – and that is why he killed them. Rashi insinuates that when God uses strict justice with the incredibly righteous, he is feared and honored. Moses later tries to comfort his brother, Aaron, saying, “This is what the Lord spoke, when He said, ‘I will be sanctified through those near to Me, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ Perhaps God took the lives of Nadav and Abihu not because he was punishing them, but because they were great – greater than their fathers – and how such greatness merits death is entirely beyond our comprehension. This is an explanation that is fitting of Aaron’s silence.
We see other times in the Torah where God has actually commanded silence as response to startling and even tragic events – this time is no different. While any of the explanations provided above may be correct, there is no denying that the unexpected deaths of these two young men were tragic and unexpected. The response of their father was not that he wasn’t grieving or devoid of emotion. It just demonstrates that in the face of God’s great, incomprehensible ways, sometimes silence is the only appropriate response.
Cantor Diane Yomtov