We read in this week's Torah portion about the death of Aaron's two eldest sons, Nadab and Abihu. They offered to God, "alien fire, which God had not enjoined upon them..." and were themselves consumed by fire that "came forth from God." (Leviticus 10:1-2) Moses justifies God's actions, while Aaron, the spokesperson, remains silent. We do not know what this silence means. Was he unable to grieve? Was he trying to "be a man" and not show any emotion? Or was he in such a state of shock and denial that he could not find his voice? The Torah does not tell us.
Moses instructs the younger sons of Aaron to take their brothers' places, and they immediately begin to carry out the duties of the priesthood. Business as usual resumes. Toward the end of chapter 10, however, a mistake is made. Because the brothers do not partake of the sin offering, which is their due, Moses rebukes them, and, by extension, their father, Aaron. It is only then that Aaron finds his voice. He tells his brother that he simply cannot carry on his work, showing joy at this time of loss. Moses, the text tells us, is pleased. Why? Most of our sages say it is because Aaron corrected his brother on a complicated legal matter. But I think not. We live in a time of death denial. We would like death (and aging, physical decay, and suffering) to just go away. How many times have I met with a family after the loss of a significant other and asked how their parent was doing only to be told, "They're fine. The doctor gave them something so they would not be so upset."
Death is upsetting, bringing loved ones pain and a sense of loss no matter at what age the deceased died. It tells us we must do without. It changes the dynamics of our family network. It stops us in our tracks. Can we spare a week for one who loved us our whole lives? Can we alter our lives a little for thirty days to demonstrate that we are mourners, fragile and not fully ourselves? Can we wear a torn black ribbon to remind ourselves and those around us that we are wounded, even scarred, by our loss? Or do we keep it all in, put on a happy face, and get back to work as if nothing has happened?
Of all our commentators, only Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (the Rashbam, c. 1085-1158, France) attributed Aaron's failure to carry out the sin-offering sacrifice to his internal emotional makeup. He has Aaron saying to Moses, "Would it be pleasing in the sight of God for me to partake of the offering in joy while my heart is full of grief and sorrow?" The Rashbam has Aaron owning up to the emotions that he was prohibited from making public. Perhaps this is why Aaron is called a man of peace. In Hebrew, the word for peace comes from the root shalem, which means "to be whole." Aaron is a whole man because he is able to express his grief and sorrow. Judaism has provided us with a profound system for helping us deal with death and loss. It is a psychologically sound and spiritually nourishing system. It helps us cope with death openly and honestly, not making more or less of death than what it is. Our lives are measured not only by how we live them but how we mourn for those who were once a part of our world.
Amidst all the pomp and circumstance, the pyrotechnics and awesome majesty, something has gone awry. A terrible tragedy has occurred! The magnificent celebration of dedication and ordination has been horribly marred by the sudden death of two priests—the eldest sons of Aaron, the high priest, no less. Why did Nadab and Abihu have to die? What horrible sin did they commit that warranted such a punishment? The text, like Aaron, remains remarkably silent, and we are left to contemplate the mystery for ourselves.
I believe that the rabbis of our tradition were also disturbed by this tragedy. It was inconceivable to them that the enthusiastic, neophyte priests would be punished so harshly for simply offering an "alien fire." Indeed, rabbinic commentaries reveal their own discomfort with the death of Nadab and Abihu as they struggle to justify their deaths. They take the liberty of filling the silence with their own reasons, ascribing to Nadab and Abihu a whole host of crimes. The rabbis suggested a variety of sins these young men may have been guilty of: entering the sanctuary drunk, refusing to marry and have children because they felt that no woman was good enough for them, and displaying such haughtiness that they refused to ask for advice from their elders or each other. It was critical for the rabbis to think that Nadab and Abihu were at fault in some way. They could not accept the fact that people die accidentally or that God would act unjustly.
How about us? Our reactions, how we respond to this tragedy, may say more about us and who we are than about the Torah, but that is the great power of Torah study. Through our serious engagement with the text, we are induced to wrestle with and better understand ourselves. What lessons, then, might we take away from this seemingly stern tale of divine justice, which is so shrouded in silence? The following are two possibilities:
Dr. Tikvah Frymer-Kensky teaches that coming into contact with what is the most holy is fraught with danger. Like those who work with nuclear energy, priests must be properly prepared and protected from uncontained holiness. Contact with pure holiness results in instantaneous death. Perhaps this parashah teaches that getting too close to God is risky business. Aaron's sons may have been careless, resulting in their deaths. Other commentators have suggested that their deaths were not a punishment at all but rather a divine reward. The two became so spiritually close to the Divine that they physically ascended to be with God.
The Torah is a mirror in which we see ourselves. The death of Nadab and Abihu continues to startle and trouble us because we remain at a loss to explain the inexplicable—to understand the incomprehensible death of loved ones and friends. Why does a beautiful three-year-old boy die of Tay-Sachs disease? How can we understand when a young man is stricken by a mysterious cancer in the prime of his life? How can we explain why a father is snatched from his family by a drunk driver? Perhaps we can never understand or explain. We can never give full expression to our grief. Sometimes words fail us and we, like Aaron, must remain silent.
Sh’mini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 798-823; Revised Edition, pp. 705-727;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 615-636