Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Parshat Shemini

Aharon's Four Sons

Aharon had two sets of sons: The older two, Nadav and Avihu; and the younger two, Elazar and Itamar.

Both sets do something wrong in this week's parsha. In the first instance, Nadav and Avihu die and Aharon is silent, in the second, Aharon rersponds to Moshe's rebuke, ans the sons go unpunished.

Let us examine the two cases.

In the first case Nadav and Avihu take coals and incense which: "which He had not commanded them. Fire went out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord" (VaYikra 10: 1-2). Moshe confronts Aharon with a somewhat cryptic statement "and Aharon was silent" (ibid 3).

In the second instance, Moshe had previously warned the priests not make the same mistake as Nadav and Avihu. They were to to be very careful in the service of God, "to distinguish between holy and profane and between unclean and clean" (ibid 10). They were to stick rigidly to the letter of the law so that they would not die, when working in the Mishkan, a very dangerous place. Moshe told them that the "whole house of Israel would mourn" their loss, but that they were not to mourn and to continue with the worship (ibid 6).

Moshe is therefore furious (notice the use of the root קצפ to describe Moshe's anger) when he "investigated concerning the sin offering he goat", i.e. the sin offering of the people, that "it had been burnt" as opposed to being eaten (ibid 16).

Moshe is concerned that as a result of not doing Israel's sins offering properly, the people had not attained atonement for previous sins. With the spirit of God now resting on the Mishkan and residing amongst the people, there was a real danger that the anger of the Lord would burn (notice again the root קצפ in passuk 6) and literally, burn the people as he had burnt Nadav and Avihu.

In this instance however, Aharon is not silent, defending them from Moshe's anger. Aharon explains that he (and his sons) had previously sacrificed his own personal sin offering (the calf – see ibid 9:2 and 8-11) and tragic "events such as these happened to me. Is it then fitting in the eyes of the Lord for me to eat the sin offering today?!" (ibid 10:19).

It is not easy to understand Aharon's defence, but examining it will perhaps help us explain why the first set of sons did wrong and were punished and in the second case the other set did wrong and were not punished?

Suffice it to say that Elazar and Itamar's concern seems to be that of the people, unlike Nadav and Avihu who seem to operated totally on their own initiative. Elazar and Itamar and Aharon seem to be concerned that their sin offering was not accepted, for how then could have Nadav and Avihu died. Their deaths occurred despite the fact that they had just offered their own personal sin offering. How was it therefore possible for them to eat the sin offering of the people and be the vehicle for Israel's forgiveness, when it seems that their own sin offering went unanswered? Surely it was therefore, better for them to burn the whole sin offering. Let God partake of the people sin's offering, for they, Elazar and Itamar, were unworthy.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Shemini, entitled: "How They Died" appears at

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