Joel Cohen’s Question:
Ostensibly seeking to do no intentional harm, but nonetheless breaking G d’s dictate, Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, took a fire pan and placed incense upon it and they brought “an alien flame” as G d had not commanded. Fire came forth and consumed them; and in an instant they died. Moses came to his brother Aaron and said, “Of this did G d speak, saying: I will be sanctified by those who are nearest Me, thus I will be honored before the entire people.” And Aaron, the verse says, was silent.
What could Moses have possibly meant or intended by his comment? In the cold night of Aaron’s despair, having disastrously lost his two sons, Moses offered a platitude—when, given his unimaginable loss, Aaron needed comfort. Moses could have told Aaron that Aaron’s loss was his loss too, offering comfort that he too suffered greatly in the loss. Moses could have said that “Your sons are in a better place in the presence of G d—and their punishment will enable us all able to lead a less sinful life.” And if really going for the gusto, Moses could have said, “Your sons have preceded you to prepare your place in heaven, making better your transition—for surely heaven will be your resting place too, when your time comes.” But no, Moses offered a trite remark.
Couldn’t Moses have used this tragic moment to teach the Children of Israel how to better comfort those who suffer from personal tragedy? Or was Moses simply a Lawgiver; the Law was violated and G d, as always, needed to be honored above all else? To put it otherwise, was Aaron silent, or was he instead astounded, “silenced,” by what Moses offered him that most horrible day in his life?
Rabbi Adam Mintz Responds:
Joel, I am surprised that you are so startled by Moses’ words of comfort to Aaron. Aaron’s two sons had just perished while they were serving in the Tabernacle. What a terrible way to die—how could Aaron have seen it as anything other than a rejection by G d of his sons’ actions? Their service was not accepted, rather rejected by G d and the cause of their demise.
So, with that introduction, we can begin to understand Moses’ words of comfort. At a time when words cannot possibly provide a true sense of consolation, Moses attempts to put the episode in a context that Aaron can both understand and one in which he will not consider his sons as sinners. You see, there’s a popular belief that “good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.” So, if the sons of Aaron died, they must be bad people! No, says Moses, G d sanctifies Himself with those who are closest to Him. Nadab and Abihu were not bad people—they were actually those “who were closest to G d.” Aaron was not consoled, and his silence reflects his inability to grasp the moment and deal with the moment. Yet, the reassurances from G d’s servant Moses that his sons were not sinners but were those who were close to G d must have made Aaron feel better.
We don’t have the ability when paying a shiva visit to offer insight into G d’s relationship with the deceased. Aaron was fortunate that his brother’s shiva visit included a reassurance from G d about the righteousness of his sons. Maybe Aaron’s silence was his way of thanking his brother for those words of comfort.
Rabbi Eli Popack Responds:
Joel, to add to what Rabbi Mintz has said, I’d like to point out that Nadab and Abihu’s act was not a necessarily a sin at all. The biblical commentator Ohr Hachaim explains that these two achieved such incredible spiritual heights, and such an acute love for their Creator, that their souls simply “kissed G d” and ascended to heaven to reconnect with their divine source.
In fact, their astounding greatness is alluded to in the words upon which your question centers, Moses’ statement to Aaron immediately following the tragedy: “This is what G d spoke, saying: ‘I shall be sanctified by those who are close to Me.’” Rashi, citing the Talmud and Midrash, explains the meaning behind these cryptic words: Moses said to Aaron, “When G d said ‘I shall be sanctified by those close to Me,’ I thought it referred to me or you; now I see that they are greater than both of us.”
Quite possibly Aaron was silent because he accepted his brother’s view of how great his sons were, and more importantly how high a level they had achieved. Not so dissimilar from your comment that Moses could have comforted his brother by saying, “Your sons have gone to a better place.”
What’s the lesson in this for us?
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov said: “It is only due to the Almighty’s great kindness that one remains alive after prayer.” Prayer is our way of transcending the mundane-ness of life and connecting to our essence and source: spirituality and G dliness. When a person truly achieves this closeness – when he truly prays – he can experience an attachment to G d of the magnitude that “took” the souls of Nadab and Abihu.
But, here’s the caveat: G d has enabled and requires us to incorporate such incredible experiences within our daily, physical lives.
Following the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, G d informs us that the fire that burned in the pans of Nadab and Abihu – a metaphor for the fire of love that was ablaze within their hearts – was an “alien flame, which G d had not commanded.” The Rebbe explains: though the Torah does not limit the closeness to G d attainable by man, we are empowered to accommodate, as live human beings, the very fire that consumed the souls of Nadab and Abihu.
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