Commentary for Shemini

21 Apr

In this week’s parshah we read of the death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, who “offered before The Lord alien fire which had not been enjoined upon them (Lev. 10:1).” Over the generations, many commentators have used context clues to theorize exactly what Nadav and Avihu did wrong and what was “alien” about the fire they used, but based on the text, this mysterious bringing of “alien fire which had not been enjoined upon them” is the closest we get to an answer of what they did that caused God to take their lives. Moses’ comment to Aaron that “this is what God meant when God said ‘through those near to Me I show myself holy and gain glory before all the people’ (Lev. 10:3)” is equally unhelpful in providing us a clear answer, and in fact complicates matters because for some commentators it serves as evidence that Nadav and Avihu did nothing wrong, but rather had their souls consumed by heavenly fire because they were so close to God.

 

The Torah records Aaron’s response to all of this as “Aaron was silent (Lev. 10:3).” This is especially strange as the Torah rarely calls attention to someone’s lack of a response. Usually the inclusion of an extra detail in the Torah helps us to answer our questions, but in this case it only serves to open up more of them. Why was Aaron silent? Did he accept his sons’ deaths without protest? Was he too depressed to speak? Too angry? Too shocked at either the events or at Moses’ interpretation of them to respond? If Moses’ words were meant- as some commentators imply- to indicate to Aaron that his sons had died because they had become so close to God, was Aaron’s silence a sign that this explanation satisfied him? We just don’t know, and it’s possible that we never will figure it out.

 

And that can be frustrating. We often see religion as a quest for truth. It is a guide to how we are supposed to live our lives, and thus it needs to be able to answer all of our questions or else we can’t use it to inform our actions and behave according to God’s will. As a result, when we are faced with events for which we can find no satisfactory theological answer, we tend to get frustrated and often just give up.

 

One famous Talmudic midrash (Menachot 29b) states that when Moses reached the top of Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah, God was putting the crowns on the letters. Moses asked God what was so important about these little artistic details that they needed to be finished before God could give the Israelites the Torah. God told Moses that there would come a man named Akiva, son of Joseph (Rabbi Akiva) who would be able to explain what each and every little line of the crowns meant and would be able to derive many teachings and laws from them. Moses asked if he could meet this Akiva, so God transported Moses to the future and Moses sat in the back of Rabbi Akiva’s class and listened to him speak about the crowns. Akiva’s teachings all flew completely over Moses’ head and he soon became despondent. Then one of Rabbi Akiva’s students asked him how he reached a certain conclusion in his lesson, and Rabbi Akiva responded “it is from a law learned by Moses at Sinai.”

 

Hearing that his own work would inspire and help scholars in future generations like Rabbi Akiva to gain an even deeper understand of the Torah, Moses cheered up significantly. He then asked God to show him what would become of Rabbi Akiva, so God showed Moses Rabbi Akiva’s body, slaughtered by the Romans. Moses is appalled at this and demands to know how such a learned and righteous person could meet such a terrible and unjust end, to which God replies “Silence! This is how it was conceived of from the beginning.” Not only does Moses not receive a satisfactory answer, but God’s response makes it quite clear that Moses should drop the subject for now.

After seeing this great injustice and not getting a satisfying answer as to why something like this could be allowed to occur, Moses easily could have given up on the whole thing, but he doesn’t. Moses works diligently and derives the very teachings upon which Rabbi Akiva and many others based their own teachings, even knowing what the end result for Rabbi Akiva would be. He kept up his learning not because Rabbi Akiva’s fate no longer bothered him, but so that he could find something that would help him understand it better.   Just with the case of the death of Aaron’s sons, we will not always have all of the answers, and the answers we find will not always come easily, but that doesn’t mean that we should give up the search because if we give up the search, we guarantee that we will never find them.

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