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Torah Attitude: Parashas Shemini: "Altogether" Righteous
Why were the sons of Aaron killed when bringing an offering? Their mistake was so minute that the main reason for their deaths is difficult to pinpoint. A student may not make halachic decisions when his teacher is around. When dealing with "fire" the sons should have been extra careful to follow standard procedure instead of inventing new ways of serving G'd. A Kohen should not drink a cup of wine before performing his duties. Were Nadav and Avihu killed because of their own sin or the sin of their father? Why would the Torah say that G'd is "without iniquity"? A human judge is not able to tailor-make the punishment to fit the offender and everyone associated with the offence. G'd takes absolutely everything into consideration when He passes judgment on us. The Torah does not permit us to watch passively while our fellow Jews go astray. There was not one "real" reason for the death of Aaron's sons. All things were considered by G'd before He passed judgment. The more righteous people that we include in our inner circle, the greater the protection this "mutual insurance" may provide us.
The death of Aaron's sons
In this week's Torah portion we read: "The sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire pan, they put fire in them and placed incense upon it; and they brought before G'd an alien fire that He had not commanded them. A fire came forth from before G'd and consumed them, and they died before G'd" (Vayikra 10:1-2). The Torah does not say exactly why the sons of Aaron were killed. Our sages mention a number of different reasons. This seems strange and makes one wonder what was the real reason for their death.
Rav Dessler explains that there were a number of flaws in the conduct of Aaron's sons which lead to their death. However, their mistake was so minute, compared to the behaviour of most, that the main reason for their deaths is difficult to pinpoint.
Not ask Moses
The Talmud (Eruvin 63a) says that the sons of Aaron died only because they gave a halachic (Jewish legal) decision in the presence of Moses, their master. In other words, they made a decision about a Torah law without asking Moses if they were correct. Even though their intentions were beyond reproach, they should have asked Moses, as a student may not make halachic decisions when his teacher is around.
Other sages say that it was the actual bringing of an "alien" fire that led to their deaths. Especially since they were literally dealing with "fire" by bringing an offering in the holiest part of the Temple, the sons of Aaron should have been extra careful to follow standard procedure instead of inventing new ways of serving G'd.
The Midrash brings another opinion that says they were killed by the heavenly fire because they drank a cup of wine before entering the Temple to bring their fire offering. This is why the Torah brings immediately afterwards that a Kohen should not drink wine before performing his duties.
All of the above opinions have one thing in common that Nadav and Avihu died due to a flaw in their own conduct. However, Rashi (10:12) quotes the Midrash that their death was a punishment for Aaron. When Aaron made the golden calf, G'd decreed that he should be punished with the loss of all of his children. However, Moses prayed and invoked G'd's mercy, so that the punishment was reduced to the loss of two of his four children. But why should Aaron's sons die due to the conduct of their father? Further, how do we reconcile the opinion of this Midrash quoted by Rashi with the other opinions of our sages? Were Nadav and Avihu killed because of their own sin or the sin of their father?
We may be able to understand this better with an explanation of Rav Eliyahu Lopian of a difficult verse in Parashas Haazinu. The Torah refers to G'd as "perfect in His work, for all His paths are justice; a G'd of faith without iniquity, righteous and fair is He" (Devarim 32:4). The question is obvious. Why does the Torah say that G'd is "without iniquity"? Surely, there are more positive and better ways to refer to the attributes of G'd?
In Tehillim (19:10), we find another strange expression. King David says: "The judgments of G'd are true, altogether righteous". What does it mean that G'd's judgments are altogether righteous? Says Rabbi Lopian, in a court, where the judgments are made by a human judge, he must focus on the accused and punish for the offence. He is not able to consider the effect the judgment will have on everyone associated with the accused. Nor can he deliberately delay the punishment to wait for the offender to repent. A human judge has no authority to tailor-make the punishment to fit the offender and everyone associated with the offence.
G'd is in no hurry
On the other hand, when G'd sits in judgment in the Heavenly Court, He is in no hurry to mete out punishment. The Torah teaches us that one of the thirteen attributes of G'd's mercy is "slow to anger" (Shemos 34:6). The Talmud tells us that G'd is slow to anger because He waits with the punishment to see if the person will repent and try to correct his wrongdoing. As Rashi explains, G'd has unlimited time to see that justice is done. Whereas human judges are limited in their perceptions and abilities to judge others, all options are open to G'd. He takes everyone associated with the wrongdoer into consideration when He passes judgment. If the wife and children do not deserve to loose their husband and father, this can save him for the time being. This is why G'd's judgments are "altogether righteous". Every judgment is rendered by G'd in exactly the right measure for both the recipient and everyone else affected by the judgment.
The Talmud (Shabbos 54b) teaches that someone who is in a position to protest a wrongdoing is also incriminated for the conduct that follows. We are our brothers' keepers. As the Talmud (Shavuoth 39a) says: All Jews are responsible for each other. The Torah does not permit us to watch passively while our brothers go astray. As it says Vayikra 20:4-5): "And if the people of the land avert their eyes from the man … and not kill him. And I shall turn My attention to this man and his family." The Talmud (Ibid) explains that the family will be punished for covering up for the transgressor. Rabbeinu Bachayei adds that sometimes the family is punished for using their influence to shield the transgressor from being punished by the court.
With this in mind, we can appreciate why people associated with someone transgressing a law may also be subject to some degree of punishment.
The bigger picture
The deaths of Nadav and Avihu are a perfect example of the righteousness of G'd's judgments. Aaron made the golden calf reluctantly to try to buy some time, hoping that Moses would return at any moment. When Hur tried to stop the mob from making the golden calf, they killed him. Aaron did not want his own blood on the hands of his fellow Jews as well. Nevertheless, Aaron should not have participated in making the golden calf and he was punished with the loss of his children. However, G'd would not have allowed Aaron's sons to be killed if there had not been something wrong in their personal conduct that justified their deaths. On the other hand, had Nadav and Avihu sinned and had been subject to capital punishment, they would not have been killed if Aaron had not done anything that brought upon him the punishment of loosing his children. When G'd gave judgment for Aaron's sons to die, G'd had the bigger picture in mind, including all of the details of Aaron's conduct and his sons' conduct.
Unfortunately, the judgments of human judges may sometimes cause greater iniquity than they resolve. For example, the family of a criminal sent to jail may be put on the street through no wrongdoing on their part. So while the criminal is getting his deserved punishment, many others, who are totally innocent of the crime, suffer too.
Although Aaron suffered greatly upon hearing of the death of his sons, and the mistakes of his sons cost them their lives, there was no "iniquity" which resulted from G'd's judgment. Both the conduct of Aaron and the conduct of his sons were considered. In the same way, Rav Dessler explains, there is no contradiction between the different reasons given for the death of Aaron's sons. There was no one "real" reason for the death of Aaron's sons. All things were considered by G'd before He passed judgment.
Rav Simcha Zissel, the Alter of Kelm, teaches us to surround ourselves with as many good friends as possible. That way, if, G'd forbid, we deserve to receive a punishment, that punishment will also affect and be hurtful to our friends. Since G'd takes everyone into consideration, the punishment may be varied in the merit of our friends. Since G'd's judgments are "altogether" righteous, the more righteous people that we include in our inner circle, the greater protection this "mutual insurance" may provide us.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network