THROUGH THOSE WHO MAY COME NEAR TO ME,
WILL I BE SANCTIFIED . . . AND AHARON WAS SILENT.
There is no really convincing explanation of the death of Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s sons, “as they brought near before God”. Different commentators, beginning with our Sages, sought to identify their sin - or the lack of sin – in various ways (they entered the holy place while inebriated, they issued rulings in the presence of their teachers, etc.)
The “outside fire” also opens the door to different derashot, as is written “every generation and its explicators”. It may well be that fire which is ‘outside’ to me may be holy for others, and so conversely.
Rashi and other commentators, in line with our Sages (Bavli, Zevahim 116b), explain Moshe’s words to Aharon following the sons’ deaths -- “Through those who may come near to me, will I be sanctified” -- as an attempt to console. Rashi writes:
“This is what God spoke . . .Through those permitted near to me, I will be sanctified” Where did He speak? “So I will appoint-meeting there with the Children of Israel, and it will be hallowed by my Glory” (Shemot 29:43) Read not “Bichevodi” – “by my Glory” – rather “Bimchubadai” – “through them that glorify Me.” Said Moshe to Aharon: “Aharon, my brother, I knew that this dwelling was to be sanctified by those close to God, and I thought that it would be through me or through you. Now I see that they were greater than you and I.”
In other words, the sanctification of the House, the Mishkan, on occasion of its dedication, is through those whom God honors; the death of Aharon’s sons on this occasion attests to their greatness.
Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, offers a different understanding of “Through those permitted near to me, I will be sanctified.” God’s words are not an explanation of what happened, but are a demand made of Aharon for the future. Writes the Rashbam:
Moshe said to Aharon: Do not mourn and do not cry and do not desist from the service. For this which I tell you ““This is what God spoke . . .Through those permitted near to me, I will be sanctified” – through the high priests who are close to me to serve me I desire to be sanctified, lest my name and my service will violated, for so The Holy One, Blessed Be He, told me, “And the priest greater than his brothers . . . his head he is not to bare, and his garments he is not to tear . . . from the Holy-Shrine he is not to go out, that he not profane the Holy-Shrine of his God. If he will not go out – (he will be) holy. There is no chronological order in the Torah. Therefore, do not leave the service, for you are the high priest, and do not go out and do not profane, but let The Holy One, Blessed Be He, and his service be sanctified by you. “Before all the people, I will be accorded honor” – This is the honor accorded the Holy Presence – he (Aharon) sees his sons die and sets aside his mourning for the sake of serving his creator.
After a description of Aharon’s reaction, the Rashbam continues:
This is the true and simple meaning. But that which the Agadda relates -- that Moshe was comforting Aharon with what God had said “It will be hallowed by my glory,” and I thought that it would be either by me or by you, now you know that they were greater than me and you – all this is not the peshat, the plain meaning, For would The Holy One, Blessed Be He, announce to Moshe “They will make a dwelling for me” and on that very day your greatest people will die?!”
The Rashbam, then, considers the phrase “Through those permitted near to me, I will be sanctified” to be a demand made of Aharon in his most difficult moment, and not as a consolation for his sons’ deaths. Yet more – The Rashbam does not even consider the possibility of attributing to God a request for “sanctification” through the deaths of those close to Him during the dedication of the Mishkan.
Neither exegetical approach – neither Rashi’s nor Rashbam’s – is easy to accept. The story itself is not at all simple. Attributing to The Holy One, Blessed Be He, a desire to be sanctified through the death of those near to him – as per the Talmud in Tractate Berachot which deals with suffering lovingly accepted (“Him who God loves does He chastise”) -- presents us with a difficult problem in the comprehension of God. On the other hand, it would seem that the demand made of Aharon not to grieve over his sons but to continue the holy service as usual, is clearly superhuman.
Difficulties aside, it may be possible to discern in these explanations two models of kedusha – of holiness.
We occasionally refer to persons who were killed or died as “kedoshim” – holy ones. In the memorial prayer (“El Moleh Rachamim”) we use the phrase “in the lofty levels of the holy and the pure ones, who shine like the glow of the firmament”. We refer to those who perished in the Shoah as “kedoshim”. In the memorial prayer on behalf of soldiers of Tzahal, we say: “Soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces who fell in sanctification of the Name, the nation, and the land.” Even if we avoid a deep discussion of these phrases, it is clear to us that there is a post facto determination of holiness (somewhat similar to the Catholic Church’s designating a pope or someone else a “saint”). It is interesting to note that the term “kiddush haShem” – Sanctification of the Name – has taken root in our vocabulary as an accepted expression for the death of persons who give their lives for what they consider to be a holy and important cause. According to this thesis, the name of the Almighty is sanctified whenever a Jew dies or is killed “Al kiddush Hashem”. This is also the source of formulation of the Kaddish – “May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified”.
We note, in this context, an enlightening and radical interpretation by S. Agnon, in his “Following The Coffins of Those Who Died in Eretz Yisrael”:
“ . . . Should even one of Israel be missing, Heaven forbid, the King’s legions are diminished, and the power of His kingdom, as it were, is weakened. For his kingdom is lacking a legion of his legions, and there is a diminution, God forbid, of His greatness. Therefore, we pray and say on behalf of each Jew who dies “May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified” – may the power of His name be magnified, and may there be no weakening before Him. May He be exalted and sanctified in the worlds which He created according to His will, and may we not fear for ourselves, but may He rise from the grandeur of the glory of His holiness “and give reign to His kingship” – that His kingdom reveal itself in perfection without any diminishing, God forbid.
In other words, the “Kaddish” prayer is intended to refill the deficiency brought about by the death of a person from Israel.
The concept of holiness, as expressed in the commentary of Rashbam, does not relate to “the death of Kedoshim”, and does not speak about “Kiddush HaShem” in the sense of martyrdom. It speaks about Man’s ability to sanctify God’s name during his lifetime, through full control over his drives and emotions.
This theory of holiness, which is future-oriented, and which focuses on striving for holiness in all areas of life, is compatible – according to Rashbam – with the plain meaning of Scripture. It also explains the juxtaposition of the parasha dealing with the death of Aharon’s sons, with the parasha dealing with those animals and insects which may not be eaten.
Aharon is forbidden to externalize his sorrow. It is interesting to compare the explanations of Rashbam and of Abarbanel of “And Aharon was silent”.
“And Aharon was silent” - he was silent about his mourning. He did not cry nor mourn, for thus is it written in Yechezkiel “Oh, mortal, I am about to take away the delight of your eyes from you through pestilence . . . mourn softly: observe no mourning for the dead.” Here, too, he “was silent” – not expressing his desire to mourn and weep.
His heart became like silent stone, and he did not raise his voice in crying and painful eulogy over his sons, and he did not accept consolation from Moshe, for he had no strength left, and he was incapable of speech.”
At first he cried aloud, and then was silent. Or in keeping with "Give your eyes no respite.”
This point of view teaches us that the striving for holiness is bound up with the imposition of intellectual, moral, and ideological constraints on drives and emotions. Aharon is commanded to continue his holy service despite his feelings and his desire to express his grief. We are commanded to refrain from eating impure beasts, animals, insects, fish, and birds – even though we may hunger for them. [As in the words of our Sages: Do not say I am incapable of eating pig, or I cannot bear to eat blood. . . ]
These days we seem to be facing – as a society – trials no less challenging than that of defying the temptation to eat forbidden foods.
Perhaps the greatest test of our leadership and of all society is that of our ability to impose our intelligence, our values, and the image of God within us, upon the difficult emotions we are experiencing. The striving for holiness demands restraint; mourning has the potential of making us – individuals and collectively – more deserving of our destiny as human beings and as Jews. Together with this, in the words of Agnon, our faith must meet the challenge of the diminution which takes place, as if it were, in the Kingdom of Heaven with each tragic incident. Sanctification of the Name during life is the religious act required in order to rehabilitate the damaged Kingdom of Heaven.
The days between Pesach and Shavuot, days of “Sefirat HaOmer”, are mentioned in Talmudic tradition as days of calamity. We observe customs of mourning in memory of Rabbi Akiva’s students who died in a plague, punishment for being disrespectful of each other. Later traditions added to the earlier tragedies “holy communities who offered their lives for Kedushat HaShem -- and during this period we recite the “Av Harachamim” prayer even on those Sabbaths when we bless the new month. The destruction of a large part of European Jewry took place during this period in the Shoah.
Biblical tradition, on the other hand, regarded these days as a time of elevation, of joy and hope, marked by the mitzvah of counting the Omer. These are the days between the festival of Pesach, marking our exodus from slavery to freedom, and the time of the giving of the Torah. Sefira represents the yearning for the complementing of the physical freedom with spiritual freedom (“There is no free person other than he who studies the Torah”).
There is, therefore, dialectic tension between the early, original, stratum of this period and the memory of difficult events which we note today.
It seems to me that we encounter this tension as we mark, within the same week, the Memorial Day for the Shoah and Remembrance Day for those who fell in Israel’s wars, and then immediately celebrate Israel’s Independence Day.
This admixture of sadness and joy is one of the distinguishing features of Jewish history and it finds expression in many customs. The eating of an egg at the seder as a sign of mourning, the breaking of a glass by the groom under the wedding canopy along with “I will raise Yerushalayim above my joy” faithfully represent the required perspective. As the Rambam wrote regarding the mitzvah of Sukka “that we always remember the days of adversity during the days of good fortune.”
This principle of complex and balanced vision is one of the unchangeable treasures of Jewish tradition. There can be no way of coping in a sane manner with the highs and lows of our personal, communal, and national life if we surrender totally to current feelings, ignoring the past and disregarding the possibilities for change which the future holds.
These words hold true for every year. It seems to me that in this difficult year their significance is especially relevant.
The terrible Shoah which engulfed the generation of our parents and grandparents was a point of change and crisis in the life of the Jewish people and the lives of all humanity. Even the need for assorted “Holocaust deniers” to deny and blur the facts testify to the tremendous difficulty in coping with this painful and monstrous memory.
Many Jews who were uprooted from their homes, who lost parents, spouses, siblings and children, and who faced brutal loss of the image of God and man, lost their faith in a good and benevolent God, and asked themselves difficult and penetrating questions.
On the public level, we see two contradictory reactions:
On the one hand, there is a tendency on the part of some of our people -- disappointed by human morality and by the nations of the world -- to justify everything done in the name of the Jewish people. The Shoah taught us that we must be strong and that we cannot depend on anyone.
On the other hand, the Shoah developed among many of us a deep sense of empathy for the suffering of all men. When these people say “Never again”, they mean that the Shoah taught us that no man should have the right to hurt another, and that no nation has the right to mistreat another.
It is possible that the difficult and complex intertwining of days of memory for the Shoah and war victims, with Independence Day, obligates us to find the balance between our deep identification with Jewish destiny and the difficult challenge of creating a just and moral society, one which respects every man created in His image, “After that you shall be called City of Righteousness, Faithful City.”