Pesach is behind us so we can return to the book of Vayikra, Leviticus, where this week we encounter a celebration with a minor tragedy, followed by a major tragedy and the beginnings of what we know as our Judaism.
The celebration we find in the parsha is the inauguration of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, with full pomp and circumstance. This occurs on the eighth day, following seven days of preparation by Aharon and his sons overseen by Moshe. They perform the ceremony perfectly. The animals, the incense, the movements, the whole nine yards. There’s just one hidden glitch. Aharon blesses the people – and no cloud of glory descends, no sign that the sacrifices have been accepted. In the next sentence Moshe and Aharon enter the Tent of Meeting and bless the nation – and then the glory of God appears to all the people.
Noting this strange event, the midrash constructs a story cited by Rashi. Aharon sees that his actions have not been successful and comes in distress to Moshe. “I know,” he says, “that God is angry with me and that’s why the Shechina did not descend on the people. Moshe, my brother, did you shame me in this way?” Immediately Moshe entered with Aharon and asked for mercy and the Shechina descended on Israel.
Yehuda Nuriel points out that this is perhaps the first inkling we find of sibling rivalry between Moshe and Aharon. From the time Moshe returns to Egypt at God’s behest, he and Aharon have worked hand in hand, Moshe as the oracle and Aharon as his mouthpiece. This should have raised some discontent in Aharon, who is the eldest, but we hear nothing of it.
With all of Aharon’s good qualities he is not Moshe. Nobody is, was or will be. There must have been some rancor in the recesses of Aharon’s mind about his younger brother hogging the limelight. And indeed, in Bamidbar, we will read that Aharon and Miriam (the third sibling) ask why they are any less important than Moshe. But that’s later.
Why would Aharon think that God was angry with him and that Moshe had a hand in it? Aharon’s one big gaffe was the golden calf debacle. According to the text, the people came and demanded a god to lead them and Aharon created (he says he doesn’t even know how!) a calf of gold.
When Moshe confronts him about his action, he says – it’s the people. You know how unruly they are. And Moshe goes along with it. In fact, we are given to understand that Moshe’s reaction to the people was made even more intense because of Aharon’s criticism.
Yet Aharon was Teflon. No blame tainted his image at that time. Could Aharon’s conscience have been assailing him now, after the seemingly unsuccessful dedication of the Mishkan, at least according to the rabbis who created the midrash? It seems likely.
This minor interruption of the service is overcome, but then, as in a Greek tragedy, Aharon’s problems increase, becoming more personal, if not more serious (what can be more serious for the High Priest than not propitiating the God he is serving!). Two of his four sons bring their own sacrifice, using “foreign fire” (whatever that means).
The response was swift. Just as fire came down from heaven to burn the sacrifice brought by Aharon, fire came down from heaven again when Nadav and Avihu brought their own offerings, and incinerated them. A horrible end to a happy occasion.
The commentators attribute the death of the two sons to actions or motives from the best to the worst. One interesting explanation of the event given by Rabbi Naftali Herz Weisel (and cited byYarin Raban) is that their excessive zeal and love for their work made them lose their humility or modesty. As Weisel says, even if we are doing something extremely good, we must be sure to do it in moderation and to the right extent. Good intentions are not enough. Unbounded love, like unbounded hate (as is recalled on Yom Hashoah this coming week) can also be a “foreign fire” that will destroy us and our actions.
Immediately after the story of Nadav and Avihu concludes, we enter the world of kashrut, permitted and forbidden foods – meat, fish, fowl and creepy-crawlies. Is there a connection? Rabbi Benni Lau and Liat Regev addressed this question and offered an insight into the progression of mitzvoth we received.
After leaving Egypt, the people learn about Shabbat, an important new element in their post-slavery lives. Then came the ten commandments. Theoretically, had the Israelites followed these ten mitzvoth, they could have led good lives.
But they didn’t. While Moshe was on the mountain they immediately violated the second of the mitzvoth – not to make a graven image. And so more mitzvoth were added, at first mostly socioeconomic rules of living.
With the Mishkan built and now inaugurated, the sacrifices should have been enough to keep the people on the straight and narrow. Dayenu. But they weren’t. Immediately the sons of Aharon transgressed and introduced their own interpretation of the sacrifices.
At this point, it was clear that the people needed strict rules of what is permitted and what is forbidden, and that’s what we receive almost until the end of the book. First food, then purity and impurity in the body, clothing and home, intimate relations, and finally the fruits of the earth and shmitta.
Today we are living under the constrictions imposed to counteract corona, for our own health, of course. We all hope that these newcomers will be phased out as quickly as is safely possible, so that we can get back to our regular quota of 613 mitzvoth!