parsha of the week

Shmini: Deaths we do not understand


What brought about the deaths of Aharon’s older sons in this week’s parsha, Shmini? Most discussions analyze the specific nature of the particular service they were performing. Were they drunk? Were they wearing the proper clothing? Did they enter an area prohibited to them? Did they perform a service reserved for their father alone? Did they merely bring a strange fire?

The different approaches curtail our ability to know exactly what triggered their deaths. A thorough analysis, however, helps paint entirely different pictures, suggesting that perhaps Aharon’s sons died for other reasons.

Picture 1: Shmot 29:43 says that when the Mishkan will be dedicated, “It is there that I will commune with the Israelites, and [the tabernacle] will thus be sanctified with My glory.” In other words, something big will happen which will demonstrate G-d’s awesome power. A sacrifice of some kind will be offered, which will consecrate the Tabernacle. It may or may not relate to the actions of individuals.

Picture 2: Shmot 19:22 says, “The priests, who [usually] come near the Divine must also sanctify themselves, or else G-d will send destruction among them.” This verse leads us to believe that somehow, Nadav and Avihu did not properly sanctify themselves.

Picture 3: Shmot 24:9-11 presents a strange narrative of the actions of some of the leading figures of Israel. “Moses then went up, along with Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and 70 of Israel’s elders. They saw a vision of the G-d of Israel, and under His feet was something like a sapphire brick, like the essence of a clear [blue] sky. [G-d] did not unleash His power against the leaders of the Israelites.” Targum Yonatan explains that G-d saved his punishment for them until the Yom HaShmini, “the eighth day” of our parsha, while Rashi explains that they deserved to be killed at that time, based on the verse, “And [G-d] said you may not see My face, for a human can not see me and live.” (Shmot 33)

Picture 4: When describing why Elazar and Itamar are described by the Torah as “the remaining, or spared sons,” Rashi on Vayikra 10:12 says, “Those spared — from death. It teaches us that the death was also decreed upon [Elazar and Itamar] over the sin of the Golden Calf as it says, ‘And G-d was angry enough with Aharon to destroy him.’ And destruction refers to the deaths of his sons, as it says (Amos 2), ‘I destroyed his fruits from above.’ Moshe’s prayer canceled half of the decree as it says, ‘And I prayed on Aharon’s behalf at that time’.” In other words, according to Rashi, all four of Aharon’s sons should have died as punishment for his behavior in the Golden Calf story, but on account of Moshe, Aharon’s punishment was cut in half — he “only” lost two sons.

The poiint of the analysis is that we have no idea why things happen, or what truly constitutes G-d’s Master Plan. And it is obvious that in many cases, it is impossible for us to understand.

In Aharon’s case, he carries on. The lesson is learned. He must find solace in his other children and do all he can to protect them. He must make sure they follow the laws and adhere to the instructions outlined for them by G-d. And they do grow, in time, to become great men.

Here and in Israel, we must learn the lessons of how to continue after deaths we do not understand. Security must be a top priority. Those who survive all kinds of attacks become the responsibility of all Jewish people. One supermarket owner, Rami Levy, has apparently committed to keep the Fogel family’s pantry stocked with food until the youngest Fogel child turns 18. This form of generosity knows no bounds. [The reference here is to the 2011 massacre in which five members of a Jewish family in Itamar were murdered in their beds.]

Obviously there is no comparison between those who are taken by G-d versus those whose lives are snuffed out by monsters in the guise of men. But when human eyes view those who perish as “the death of innocents,” lessons to be drawn are one and the same. Steps must be taken to assure that the young who remain will get a chance to grow old.

This column is reprinted from 2011.