This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Betsy Morgan
וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אַחֲרֵי מוֹת, שְׁנֵי בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן—בְּקָרְבָתָם לִפְנֵי-ה’, וַיָּמֻתוּ
God spoke to Moshe after the death of Aharon’s two sons,
as they sacrificed/came near to God, and died.
After the death of Aharon’s sons in Parashat Shemini, Parshiyot Tazria and Metzora dealt with other matters, and (in America) there have been two additional weeks of break from the regular Torah reading because of Pesach. How helpful of the Torah to reorient us to pertinent events so that the subsequent verses flow naturally!
וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, דַּבֵּר אֶל-אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ, וְאַל-יָבֹא בְכָל-עֵת אֶל-הַקֹּדֶשׁ . . . וְלֹא יָמוּת . . .
בְּזֹאת יָבֹא אַהֲרֹן, אֶל-הַקֹּדֶשׁ: בְּפַר בֶּן-בָּקָר לְחַטָּאת, וְאַיִל לְעֹלָה
God said to Moshe, speak to your brother Aharon to not come at any time into the Holy . . .
and (thus) he will not die . . ..
Thus should Aharon come to the Holy: with a calf for a sin offering, and a ram as a burnt offering.
It seems the death of Nadav and Avihu was only mentioned as a transition. But what is the nature of this transition?
- Literarily, these laws, which describe the Yom Kippur service in the Temple, occurred after the death of Nadav and Avihu, which has been distanced in the text by other laws. Thus, it makes sense that the Torah would orient the reader before starting the new topic.
- The topic of priests’ death is returned to, to point out that they died from inappropriate action regarding the Mishkan, and Aharon too will die if he enters the Holy of Holies, where God dwells. There is, however, one exception: on Yom Kippur, when performing the service, Aharon is allowed to enter the Holy of Holies. God then describes the Temple service to be performed on Yom Kippur. So the subject of the death is a stepping stone to arrive at last to the real topic of Yom Kippur with its laws and services.
- There is a substantive relationship between the death of Nadav and Avihu and the service of Yom Kippur, and Aharon’s development is the center of it.
I prefer to read this the third way.
The story starts in Shmot 29, when God spends 46 verses telling Moshe how the consecration of the Mishkan and Kohanim will be done – describing donning the correct garments, and the order and procedure for various sacrifices. Vayikra 8 is when these events begin, the sacrifices prepared and brought, the priest washed, dressed, anointed, and thus consecrated.
On the eighth day of this consecration there are a new set of sacrifices to be brought, with the people of Israel watching in order that they see the “glory of God” (Vayikkra 9:6). One of these sacrifices is a calf. Rashi (9:2) comments upon the verse telling Aharon to take the calf
להודיע שמכפר לו הקב”ה ע”י עגל זה על מעשה העגל שעשה
To inform that God would grant atonement through this calf for the sin of the (golden) calf that he made
Later verses corroborate this reading, categorizing this sacrifice as a sin offering “to atone for [Aharon] and for the nation” (Vayikra 9:7). How fitting, that a calf once a symbol of betrayal straying and waywardness, now the ultimate display of devotion to God. Aharon, once at the heart of a dire disappointment, became enabled to publicly transform failure into worship, sealing his consecration with atonement. Aharon blesses the assembled nation and they do indeed see the glory of God. A fire descends upon the altar and consumes the burnt offering and the nation as witnesses sing and bow in awe (Vayikra 22-24).
At the climax of the consecration of the Mishkan and the priests who serve in it, Nadav and Avihu do what was not prescribed by God. They offer a strange fire, and are consumed by God in the eyes of all. The message in this case is immediately clear: one cannot assume to know the correct way to serve God in the Mishkan. Those who fail to comply are unfit for the service.
But there is an additional failure present in these actions. At the very moment that Aharon is atoning for his and the nation’s sin of the golden calf, a gesture of misplaced faith, his sons act out in another desperate attempt to worship. Aharon once again fails to stop misplaced religious ecstasy. At Sinai, and then again during the consecration of God’s dwelling on Earth, Aharon is present and closest to severe deviations from God’s path.
Later that day, in Vayikra 10:12, Moshe finds that Aharon and his remaining sons did not eat the sin offering that was specifically meant to atone for the community; instead they burned with the other burnt sacrifices. Aharon replies by asking if really God would want him to eat the sin offering in the wake of the day’s events. Aharon is really asking Moshe, through his acrid question, if the atonement still applies after his own demonstrated inability to improve. (There may be other underlying aspects of legalities of his status as an onen (a mourner who is technically exempt from performing mitzvot.)
Our parsha opens reminding of us of the death of Aharon’s sons, another of his failures. But the tone turns. While the second verse of the parsha describes what Aharon must not do, lest he die, God tells him that he can enter this holy place, if done properly. Every year, Aharon is given another chance to atone.
I find it deeply meaningful that this character at the center of religious disasters is also the primary character carrying the atonement of the entire Jewish people. These two roles that Aharon plays are not accidental features, but inherent to the process of repenting. The inherent nature of combining sin and service is demonstrated with the two goats of the Yom Kippur service. Their fates are determined by lot: one is marked for God and one for “azazel”. Mishnah Yoma 6:1 teaches that these two goats are to be as identical as possible in regards to general appearance, size, and worth. Moreover, they should be taken as a pair, meaning if two are taken together and one dies after the lot has been drawn, two new goats must be found to replace both. The goat for God is slaughtered as a sin offering, the goat for azazel is sent off to wander in the desert with Aharon’s confession riding it.
Vayikra 16:21 describes the confession part of the process thusly:
וְסָמַךְ אַהֲרֹן אֶת-שְׁתֵּי יָדָו, עַל רֹאשׁ הַשָּׂעִיר הַחַי, וְהִתְוַדָּה עָלָיו אֶת-כָּל-עֲוֹנֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאֶת-כָּל-פִּשְׁעֵיהֶם לְכָל-חַטֹּאתָם; וְנָתַן אֹתָם עַל-רֹאשׁ הַשָּׂעִיר, וְשִׁלַּח בְּיַד-אִישׁ עִתִּי הַמִּדְבָּרָה.
Aharon will place his two hands on the head of the living goat, and confess upon it the iniquities of the children of Israel. All their misdeeds and sins he will place on the goat’s head and he will send by the Timely Man into the wilderness.
Mishnah Yoma 6:2 details the words of the confession
אנא ה’–עוו פשעו וחטאו לפניך עמך, בית ישראל;
אנא ה’–כפר נא לעוונות ולפשעים ולחטאים, שעוו ושפשעו ושחטאו לפניך עמך, בית ישראל: ככתוב בתורת משה עבדך לאמור “כי ביום הזה יכפר עליכם, לטהר אתכם: מכול, חטאותיכם, לפני ה’, תטהרו” (ויקרא טז,ל).
Please God, Your nation the House of Israel have committed iniquities, misdeeds, and sins before you. Please God, please forgive them for their iniquities, misdeeds, and sins, that Your nation the House of Israel committed before you. As it is written in the Torah of Moshe Your servant “on this very day He will forgive them to purify them from all of their sin. Before God they will be purified” (Vayikra 16:30).
The two goats must be similar, as if they are one being, despite their disparate paths. They parallel Aharon, his two roles as being burdened with sin while also being the vehicle for repentance. The two are meant to be inexorably intertwined, sinning and repenting. Only he that knows the meaning of iniquity, misdeed, and sin can confess and pray on behalf of Israel to be able, even if momentarily, to attain purity.
Betsy Morgan (SBM ‘13, ‘14) is currently a pre-junior at Drexel University studying Materials Science and Engineering and wishes a happy birthday to her sister Adena Morgan (SBM ‘11, ‘13)