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"The Very Same Fire" - Death and Redemption

One who receives something for nothing does not always know how to appreciate it as he should. The more we sacrifice ourselves for the sake of possessing the Land the greater will our bond with the Land be.


Rabbi S. Yossef Weitzen

Iyar 5762
2 min read
1. The Death of Aaron's Sons: Appreciating Redemption
2. The Very Same Fire
3. The Most Important Goal of All
4. Joy and Tears Mixed Together
5. From Outer Rejoicing to Inner Gladness

The Death of Aaron's Sons: Appreciating Redemption
During the past year, we have been repeatedly shaken by the loss of precious Jewish souls. We have time and time again experienced for ourselves that which the Torah relates concerning the tragic end of Nadav and Avihu.

God spoke to Moses just after the death of Aaron's two sons, who brought an offering before God and died. (Leviticus 16:1)

Let us now learn from this very episode how to respond to and deal with death.

God said to Moses: "Speak to your brother Aaron and let him not enter the sanctuary that is beyond the partition concealing the Ark, so that he may not die, since I appear over the Ark cover in a cloud. When Aaron enters the sanctuary, it must be with a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering." (Ibid. 16:2)

The deaths initially cause awe and a sense of estrangement from the Holy of Holies. People revere things that appear enormous in their eyes, things which they are unable to grasp. On the first day of the dwelling of God's Divine Presence, the Israelites experience a feeling of extreme closeness to God. This diminished their feeling of reverence. The deaths of Nadav and Avihu served to reestablish the love-fear equilibrium. Precisely because of this sense of awe, a renewed desire to approach the sanctuary was born. "When Aaron enters the sanctuary..." There is an intense anticipation of the moment when it will be possible to enter the sanctuary.

One of the problems of western culture is its sense that everything is accessible and possible to attain with ease. Consequently, everything we relate to depreciates. There are no exalted values deserving of our exertion and self-sacrifice. It follows that though we live in a world of abundance and comfort, our existence remains spiritually wanting.
In a like manner, the loss of life experienced while on the path to redemption involves a twofold impression. The greater the price, the more we become aware of its lofty nature. We understand that in order to reach redemption's peak we must pass through many stations. The more that the price which we are forced to pay rises, the better we understand the profundity of the process. Yet, it is precisely this mixture of profundity and pain that instills in us an intense anticipation of redemption. Every setback causes us additional desire. It is this very desire which will allow us to overcome all obstacles and to taste the special sweetness of our eventual consolation.

This concept is found in the teachings of the great Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shelomo, the Gaon of Vilna, and brought in the book "Kol HaTor":

Be aware from the outset that the beginning of the redemption comes through both suffering and pleasure. [On the one hand] it comes through the principle of divine justice - i.e., through an earthly awakening; the footsteps of the Messiah come via painful struggling, and sometimes even in a most roundabout way. On the other hand, though, there exists the attribute of loving mercy [through which God administers things]... [One must] know from the outset that the Land of Israel is acquired through suffering, yet in this manner she it absolutely acquired.

The Gaon of Vilna makes it clear that suffering is part of the price that we must pay in order to acquire the Land of Israel. It is possible to receive the Land through compassion, yet this would be like receiving a gift. One who receives something for nothing does not always know how to appreciate it as he should. By virtue of our suffering the land is acquired by us justly, as if we had paid the full price for it. One who receives something in this manner might be compared to a person who saved money day after day in order to acquire something that he very much desired. This sort of person will properly appreciate the item that he buys. The more we sacrifice ourselves for the sake of possessing the Land, the greater will our bond be with the Land.

The Very Same Fire
Moses said to Aaron, "This is exactly what God meant when He said 'I will be sanctified through those close to me, and before all the people I will be glorified.'" Aaron remained silent.

Initially, Aaron weeps. Yet, when Moses says to him, "I will be sanctified through those close to me," Aaron understands that this is not the time to cry - "Aaron remained silent." The commentators ask: When did God ever say, "I will be sanctified through those close to me," and what sort of consolation does this contain?

The great Bible commentator, Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra explains as follows:
"This is exactly what God meant when He said..." - God [, says Moses,] has already told me that He will make known His holiness through those close to him, as if in keeping with the concept, "You only have I known of all the families of the earth," and when I [God] reveal my holiness through them I will become great, and before the entire nation I will become honored, and they will fear me.

Ibn Ezra thus teaches us that here God revealed His providence over the world. The fact that God displays impatience and immediately brings suffering upon an individual, is not a sign that the individual is distant from God. To the contrary, it is because the Almighty desires his repentance that He does not allow him to become entangled in sin. God reacts immediately in order that we be worthy of the continued dwelling of the Divine Presence. "You only have I known of all the families of the earth, therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities" (Amos 3:2). Such has Amos the Prophet taught us.

The disappearance of Nadav and Avihu was initially interpreted by Aaron as a withdrawal of the Divine Presence. Moses, though, explains to him that the Divine Presence has not disappeared. To the contrary, what we are experiencing here is painfully intense Divine Providence. It is a providence meant to further the ultimate aim of this, the "eighth day" (after the seven days of installment): the revelation of God's glory.
The deaths of Nadav and Avihu brought about a sanctification of God's name. God is so awesome that even those who are close to him become instruments for the revelation of this awesomeness.
Rabbi Bachya ibn Paquda, " Rabbenu Bachya ," in his Torah commentary, provides a similar answer to the question of when exactly God had spoken:

"This is exactly what God meant when He said..." And when exactly did He say this? ...During the Sinaitic Revelation when he warned the priests not to behave frivolously, as it is written, "The priests who come close to God are to become sanctified, lest God strike out at them." This was the case with Nadav and Avihu; God indeed struck out at them. This is the intention of what is written here, "I will be sanctified through those close to me." There it is written, ["The priests] who come close to God are to become sanctified..."

Once it had become clear to Aaron that sanctification of God's name called for the death of his two sons, he was somewhat comforted. Rabbi Ovadyah ben Yaakov Sforno, or " Sforno ," regarding the words, "Aaron remained silent," says that Aaron was, "consoled by the sanctification of God's name that resulted from their deaths."

It is told of Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman , hy"d, who died sanctifying God's name in the Holocaust, that he turned to the members of his congregation just before his death and said to them, among other things:

During the afternoon service of Tishah B'Av we say, "Therefore, Zion weeps bitterly and Jerusalem raises her voice. My heart, my heart - [it aches] for their slain! My innards, my innards - [they ache] for their slain. For You, O God, with fire you consumed her and with fire you will rebuild her, as it says: 'I will be for her, the words of God, a wall of fire around and I will be glorious in her midst.' Blessed are You, O God, Who consoles Zion and rebuilds Jerusalem."
The very same fire through which God builds Jerusalem is the one through which we are now going to sacrifice ourselves in sanctification of God's name.

If the eminent Rabbi Wasserman could make such a statement concerning Jews killed in the final generation of the Exile, this must no doubt also be the case regarding the individuals who are today being killed through sanctification of God's name in our present war, a war which is paving the way to redemption. Concerning such souls, the expression that we use to comfort mourners is: "Be consoled through Zion's consolation."

The Most Important Goal of All
Rashi's grandson, " Rashbam " (Rabbi Shemuel ben Meir), though, offers a different explanation of our passage.

"Moses said to Aaron" - Do not mourn and do not weep and do not cease your service. That which I say to you is exactly what God meant when He said "I will be sanctified through those close to me" - Through the High Priests, who in their service of me are close to me, I wish to be sanctified, that my name and my service not be desecrated. For God has told me: "The High Priest among his brothers... shall not go without a haircut, and shall not allow his vestments to be torn... he may not leave the sanctuary. He will then not profane his God's sanctuary." If, then, he does not leave the sanctuary, God is sanctified... therefore do not suspend your service, for you are the High Priest. Do not leave and do not profane, rather, allow God and his service to be sanctified through you.
"And before all the people I will be glorified" - It is an honor for the Divine Presence that the High Priest sees his beloved children die, yet disregards his mourning in favor of the service of his Creator.

The Torah obligates the High Priest with a unique commandment. Even when one of his relatives dies, the High Priest is not permitted to suspend his service in order to mourn. The reason for this is that the High Priest is constantly taken up with the weighty task of guaranteeing the presence of God's glory. Preoccupation with duties of a collective nature takes precedence over the personal obligation of mourning. The High Priest is called upon to reveal to all, through his behavior, Judaism's true and objective hierarchy of values. The ultimate priority is the constant presence of the God's glory. Everything else that we do must be for the sake of this lofty goal. In order to emphasize the great importance of this aim we must push aside everything else which threatens to interfere. Similarly, the priests, on the eighth day, after the seven days of installment, were taken up by the task of bidding the appearance of God's glory. This, the eighth day, is dedicated to the highest of goals - the dwelling of Divine Presence in the midst of the Jewish people. On this day, all priests are like the High Priest. That the High Priest witnesses the deaths of his beloved children, yet manages to restrain his tears and to continue in the service of his creator, serves to honor the Divine Presence.

Recently, the media reported an interesting story concerning an IDF officer who had taken part in the fighting in Jenin. The officer's mother, a Holocaust survivor, called him one morning during the course of the military operation. On the telephone, she told him that she viewed his service in the IDF as her sweet revenge on the Nazis. "Your job," said the mother, "is to assure successful combat and to protect your soldiers so that they do not get injured." Some hours later the officer was informed that his mother had passed away. After taking part in the funeral, the officer decided that, rather than observe the seven-day "Shiva" mourning period, he would return to his soldiers at the front. The following day, the general visited the soldiers in Jenin. During the course of his talk, he noticed that one of the officers present wore a torn shirt. Upon inquiry, he was told that this officer was mourning for his mother; he had chosen to return to his soldiers rather than observe the traditional "Shivah." Afterwards, the general called the officer aside and ordered him to return home immediately and mourn properly for his deceased mother. The officer responded, "This is the first time in my life that I have ever disobeyed the order of a superior, yet my mother's order comes first - and she ordered me to look after my soldiers." The general embraced the officer.
Israeli soldiers, engaged in battle with the enemies of the Jews are in fact busy causing the Divine Presence to dwell among us:

God your Lord is the One who is going with you. He will fight for you against your enemies, and He will deliver you. (Deuteronomy 20:4)

This is because God your Lord makes His presence known in your camp, so as to deliver you and grant you victory over your enemy. Your camp therefore must be Holy. Let Him not see anything lascivious among you and turn away from you. (Ibid. 23:15)

The war against the enemies of Israel is like a war against the enemies of God Himself. They obstruct His Divine Presence from dwelling on earth. Many sources teach us that the implication of Israeli victory in war is the bright countenance that God reveals to us via victory:

For they did not get the land in possession by their own sword, nor did their own arm save them, but your right hand, and your arm and the light of your countenance, because you accepted them favorably. You are my king, O God. Command deliverances for Jacob. Through you will we push down our enemies. Through your name will we trample those who rise up against us. (Psalms 44:4-6)

A soldier who is engaged in revealing God's glory diverts his attention from all of his personal obligations and concentrates on the most important goal of all - victory in battle. Mourning over the deceased at a time of war must be done in such a way that it not impair the soldier's capacity to finish his job. It should be practiced primarily by those who are not directly involved in the war. The Torah relates that on the eighth day, after the seven days of installment:

Moses said to Aaron and his sons, Elazar and Itamar, "Do not go without a haircut, and do not tear your vestments; otherwise you will die, bringing divine wrath upon the entire community. As far as your brothers are concerned, let the entire family of Israel mourn for the ones whom God burned. (Leviticus 10:6)

Joy and Tears Mixed Together
We may assume that even those Jews who wept were at any rate affected by the joy felt due to the dwelling of the Divine Presence. The eighth day became something of a special day, a day on which both joy and tears mixed together. The Jewish people were elevated on that day to the level of "rejoicing in awe."

From this point onward, the day which expresses more than any other the dwelling of God's glory is Yom Kippur. Unlike the Sinaitic Revelation, at which the Divine Presence appeared while "they ate and they drank," on Yom Kippur we encounter God's presence via the commandment to "afflict your souls." The Midrash reveals a connection between the eating and drinking of the Elders of Israel during the giving of the Torah, and the deaths of Nadav and Avihu:
"The people started to complain [, and it was evil in God's ears. When God heard this He displayed His anger, and God's fire flared out, consuming the edge of the camp...and He named the place 'Burning,' for God's fire had burned them (Numbers 11:1).]" At that time everybody was burned. Yet, they were burned in a manner similar to that of Nadav and Avihu who also behaved with laxity when they ascended Mount Sinai upon seeing the Divine Presence, "and they saw God and they ate and drank" (Exodus 24:11). But, did they actually eat and drink? Rather, to what may we compare this? To a servant who while serving his master held his food and ate. So, too, they behaved with laxity as if eating and drinking. The Elders, Nadav, and Avihu were all deserving of being burnt at that time. Yet, because the day of the giving of the Torah was beloved in the eyes of the Almighty, He did not wish to strike them down in an outburst of wrath on that very day, as it written, "God did not unleash His power upon the leaders of the Israelites" (Ibid.) This implies that they were deserving of having His power sent against them. After some time, though, He took Nadav and Avihu from them. They were burnt when they entered the Tent of Meeting...

From here on the Divine Presence is to dwell as a result of awe and caution, not frivolity. This acts to mend the sin of Nadav and Avihu. Though Yom Kippur is a day full of awe, this does not prevent us from feeling that which the Sages said in the Mishna:

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said: There were never so joyful days for Israel as the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur. On these days the girls of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white apparel, so as not to embarrass she who did not have. (Taanit 4:8)

Not only is the joy of this day not reduced, but this joy, steeped in awe, becomes a more internal joy, a joy that evolves from a sense of atonement, purity, and love.

From Outer Rejoicing to Inner Gladness
We find something of a parallel to the death of Nadav and Avihu in the death of Uzza:

David rose up and went with all the people that were with him from Ba'ale-Yehudah, to bring up from there the Ark of God, whose name is called by the name of the Lord of Hosts who dwells upon the cherubs. And they placed the Ark of God upon a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Aminadav who was in Giva, and Uzza and Ahyo, the sons of Aminadav, drove the new cart. And they brought it out of the house of Aminadav which was at Giva, escorting the Ark of God. And Ahyo went before the Ark. And David and all the House of Israel played before the Lord on all sorts of instruments made of cypress wood, on lyres and on lutes, and on timbles, and on rattles and on cymbals. And when they came to Nakhon's threshing-floor, Uzza extended his hand to the Ark of God, and took hold of it, for the cattle shook it. And the anger of the Lord burned against Uzza, and God struck him down there because of his mistake, and there he died by the Ark of God. And David was upset because the Lord had burst out against Uzza, and he named the place "Peretz Uzza" to this day. And David feared the Lord that day and said, How shall the Ark of the Lord come to me? (2 Samuel 6:1-9)

The death of Uzza is understood by King David to be an indication from heaven that the time has not yet come to bring the Ark up to Jerusalem. There is, apparently, still a need to prepare and refine in order to be worthy of such. This is the essence of David's fear on this day. Some time later, when David learns that God has blessed the house of Oved-Edom because the Ark was there, David sees this as a sign from God that the time has arrived:

And it was told to King David, saying, the Lord has blessed the house of Oved-Edom and all that he has, because of the Ark of God. Therefore, David went and brought up the Ark of God from the house of Oved-Edom into the City of David with gladness. And when they that carried the Ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. And David jumped about in front the Lord with all of his might, and David was girded with a linen vest. So, David and all of the House of Israel brought up the Ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the Shofar. And as the Ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Mikhal, Saul's daughter, looked through a window and saw David dancing and leaping before it, and she despised him in her heart. And they brought the Ark of the Lord and set it in its place, in the midst of the tent that David had pitched for it, and David burnt offerings before the Lord. And as soon as David had made an end of offering burnt offerings and peace offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts. (Ibid. 12-18)

What difference was there between the first bringing up of the Ark, during which God lashed out, and the second? The commentators, in attempting to clarify what sin there was in David's first attempt, touch upon this question.
The Sages explain that on the first occasion they transported the Ark on a wagon and not on their shoulders as the Torah commanded. It would seem that transporting upon a wagon is a more honorable manner. All the same, the Torah prefers the carrying on the shoulder. Perhaps this is because when we come to stand before God we must come in simplicity, without revealing any sort of affluence. A person must stand plainly before his Creator with all his heart and in all his human simplicity. The High Priest, on the Day of Atonement would remove his gold apparel and enter the Holy of Holies adorned in a plane white outfit. Perhaps this is the reason that on the second attempt David wore a linen ephod. Apparently on the first attempt, David came wearing his royal outfit. The second time, David came in submissive simplicity, like any ordinary individual.
We might take note of the fact that on the first occasion David and all the House of Israel "played," while on the second occasion it is written that the Ark was bought up amidst "gladness." Apparently, there is a difference between these two terms. " Malbim " (Rabbi Meir Leib ben Yechiel Michael) in his monumental analytic commentary on the Bible, points out additional differences:

"David and all of Israel here too behaved improperly, for they were playing lightheartedly, and were not "trembling with joy." They were not playing upon those musical instruments designated for the Temple service, and the music was not performed by the Levites whose duty it is to perform. Rather, all of Israel [played] on all manner of instruments..."

On the second ascent, David made up for all that was lacking in the first. Malbim explains: "So David went and brought up the Ark of God... with gladness... and he did not bring it up lightheartedly like the first time, but amidst the gladness of [filling] God's will." On the second occasion they used the sound of the Shofar. The Shofar is an instrument which mixes weeping with gladness, love and fear. On the second occasion, David brings up the Ark amidst joy and trembling. Only this mixture is capable of instilling true inner gladness, and not mere outer rejoicing.
What is it that causes the differing levels between the first bringing up and the second? There is a difference between the sort of gladness that precedes the death of the righteous and that which follows. Before, the gladness is external and not heartfelt. Only after the death of Uzza, only after the departure of his soul while attempting to bringing up the Ark, does the gladness takes on a deeper and more internal nature.

Some of the biblical verses here were taken from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's "Living Torah," others from the Jerusalem Bible (Koren).

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