March 20, 2014
A Fire Came Forth
This week’s parsha tells of the dedication of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) by Aaron and the tragedy of the sudden death of two of his sons, Nadav and Avihu, when they brought an offering not requested of them.
1. And Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his pan, put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and they brought before the Lord foreign fire, which He had not commanded them. א. וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ קְטֹרֶת וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם:
2. And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. ב. וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְהֹוָה וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם וַיָּמֻתוּ לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה:
And fire went forth: Rabbi Eliezer says: Aaron’s sons died only because they rendered halachic decisions in the presence of Moses, their teacher. Rabbi Ishmael says: [They died because] they had entered the sanctuary after having drunk wine. The proof is that after their death, [Scripture] admonished the survivors that they may not enter the sanctuary after having drunk wine. This is analogous to a king who had a faithful attendant. [When he found him standing at tavern entrances, he severed his head in silence and appointed another attendant in his place. We would not know why he put the first to death, but for his enjoining the second thus, “You must not enter the doorway of taverns,” from which we know that for such a reason he had put the first one to death. Thus [it is said], “And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.” But we would not know why they [Nadab and Abihu] died, but for His commanding Aaron, “Do not drink wine that will lead to intoxication.” We know from this that they died precisely on account of the wine. For this reason Scripture showed love to Aaron by directing the divine utterance to him alone, thus, “Do not drink wine that will lead to intoxication,”] as recounted in Vayikra Rabbah (12:1).
ותצא אש: רבי אליעזר אומר לא מתו בני אהרן אלא על ידי שהורו הלכה בפני משה רבן. רבי ישמעאל אומר שתויי יין נכנסו למקדש, תדע שאחר מיתתן הזהיר הנותרים שלא יכנסו שתויי יין למקדש. משל למלך, שהיה לו בן בית וכו’, כדאיתא בויקרא רבה:
Rashi chose the Midrash to fit the verses.
“And the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan and they put fire in them and placed incense on it and they brought near before Hashem a foreign fire which He had not commanded them. And a fire came forth from before Hashem and consumed them, and they died before Hashem.”
Rashi gave us two possible reasons for the sudden deaths of Nadav and Avihu.
Rashi supplied us with reasons for the death of Aaron’s sons, but the Torah itself says “and they brought before Hashem, a strange fire which He commanded them not.” This would seem to be the reason for their deaths. Why does Rashi need to suggest other reasons?
You may remember other instances in the Torah where Rashi offers reasons for events when the Torah itself had already stated a reason. See, for example, Rashi’s comments on the case of Jethro’s coming to meet Moses (Exodus 18:1) and on the naming of Reuben (Genesis 29:32). In each case, Rashi offers reasons other than those which the Torah itself gives. His comment alerts us to closely search the words of the Torah to discover subtleties which prompted Rashi’s comment.
An explanation for the need for additional reasons for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu may be that they had done something apparently quite positive. They brought a voluntary offering to God. Why should they be punished – and with such a severe punishment – for a well-intentioned act?
Rashi’s comment is meant to explain how the sin of these men was deserving of the death penalty. Bringing the strange fire was an unintentional transgression; but deciding the law in Moses’ presence was an intentional act which flaunted the chain of authority in Halachic matters. Also entering the Tabernacle in an intoxicated state is a flagrant violation of the decorum of such a holy place. The death penalty, harsh as it was, can more easily be appreciated with the additional reasons that Rashi offers us.
On what basis did Rabbi Eliezer conclude that their sin was deciding the Halacha without consulting Moses?
The Torah says “Hashem had not commanded them to bring.” The extra word “them” implies that Hashem had commanded to bring this fire, but had not commanded them to do so. If so Moses, the Lawgiver, would have to decide who should be the one to bring this fire. But they brought it without being commanded. The fact that they did bring the fire shows that they decided to do so without consulting the leading authority of the generation Moses,their uncle and teacher.
See above 1:7 (Parshat Vayikra) where it says that sons of Aaron are to put fire on the altar. There Rashi notes “Even though fire would come down from heaven, it was nevertheless a mitzvah for ‘profane’ fire to be brought [by the priests].” So it seems that Nadav and Avihu weren’t doing anything wrong. However, since Moses had not ordered them to be the ones to bring this fire, they had acted out of turn.
The reason for Rabbi Yishmael’s interpretation is clear. Rashi himself says that the fact that immediately after this tragedy, God commanded Aaron not to enter the Sanctuary intoxicated by wine, would indicate that intoxication was the reason for Nadav and Avihu’s deaths, as the parable points out.
However, If God only forbade entering the Sanctuary in a state of intoxication after the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, why were they punished? At the time they entered the Sanctuary intoxicated, there was as yet no prohibition.
Common sense and common decency would dictate – even without a divine edict – that one should not enter such a holy place while under the influence of wine. They should have understood this themselves. They are no less responsible for their behaviour just because they were not told explicitly of this prohibition. However, once God saw that they could ignore this elementary act of decency, He found it necessary to make the law explicit and abundantly clear. So afterwards He made a formal declaration to Aaron of the laws of decorum when serving in the Sanctuary.
RASHI’S USE OF MIDRASH
Rashi here cites two Midrashic interpretations for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. But those familiar with Rashi throughout the Torah may recall that in other places he has given other reasons for their deaths.
See Exodus 24:9 on the words, “They saw the God of Israel.” Rashi says, “They looked and peeked and were guilty of death. But [God] did not want to dilute the joy of receiving the Torah, so he waited [to punish] Nadav and Avihu until the day of the dedication of the Tabernacle.
See also Leviticus 10:12 on the words, “Elazar and Itamar, his remaining sons.” Rashi says, “[Those who survived] death. This teaches us that they too were to have been punished by death for the sin of the Golden Calf.”
And see Leviticus 16:1 on the words, “And Hashem spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron.” Rashi says, “Rabbi Eliezer son of Azariah suggested a parable: of a sick man whom the doctor visited etc…. Therefore it says ‘after the deaths of the two sons of Aaron.’ “
The reference is to the Torah’s words, “after the death of the two sons of Aaron when they came near to Hashem and they died.” Rabbi Eliezer son of Azariah thus concludes that they died because they “came near to Hashem.”
We see that in different places in his Torah commentary Rashi has offered five different reasons for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. Why does he cite so many different and contradictory reasons? And if he does find the need to cite them, why does he cite one reason in one place and in another place he cites another reason? How are we to understand this?
This teaches us an important lesson about Rashi’s use of Midrashim. Many Midrashim exist; many, many more than Rashi cites, as he himself tells us in his famous programmatic statement in Genesis 3:8. But Rashi cites only those Midrashim that have relevance to the particular verse upon which he is commenting. Rashi selects the Midrashic explanation that best fits in with the particular context within which their deaths are mentioned. In our case, he cites two opinions for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu.
It is important to point out that Rashi drew the first opinion, that of Rabbi Eliezer, from the Midrash Vayikra Rabbah, while Rabbi Yishmael’s opinion comes from the Midrash Toras Cohanim; two separate sources. We see that Rashi quite purposefully sought out those Midrashim that fit his purpose.
If we analyze the two opinions given here, we see that they both are based on, and have ties with, the immediate surrounding context of this verse. The first opinion, that of Rabbi Eliezer, is that they died because they decided a point of law on their own. Which law? That of bringing their own fire into the Tabernacle. This point is connected with the verse immediately before our verse. There it says, “A fire went out from before Hashem and consumed [the offering on the altar].” Did you notice that our verse closely parallels that verse by saying, “And a fire went out from before Hashem and consumed them”? Their bringing the fire without Moses’ consent was their fatal mistake.
The second opinion, that of Rabbi Yishmael, is clearly based on the verse that comes after this incident, as Rashi says – the laws prohibiting imbibing alcoholic beverages before serving in the Tabernacle.
So Rashi has chosen just those Midrashim that have an anchor in the context of our verse. On the other hand, the sins of the Golden Calf, of staring at God or the prohibition of entering the Holy of Holies are not mentioned here. Rashi thus does not draw on those other Midrashim here to enlighten us as to Nadav and Avihu’s sin.
But which is the truth? Which is the real reason for their deaths? One must understand that Midrash Aggadah is not Midrash Halacha. In the realm of Halacha we can end up with only one final decisive conclusion. The world of Midrash Aggadah is different. The Midrash exists to teach us a lesson, either moral, ethical or religious. Many lessons can be learned from any one incident. So too in our case – many lessons can be learned from the tragic deaths of such righteous individuals as Nadav and Avihu. This is what the Sages are doing when they suggest the different sins of these men. And this, too, is what Rashi is doing when he cites them, albeit in different places and in different contexts.
When Rashi cites a Midrash which seems to contradict what the Torah itself has said, there is cause for reflection and deeper analysis. And when Rashi chooses a particular Midrash from among many, he has a reason for doing so.