In this cycle, through the Torah, we will be taking a mystical journey. Our guide will be Rabbi Larry Tabick’s book, The Aura of Torah, published in 2014 by the Jewish Publication Society and the University of Nebraska. Translations of kabbalistic texts are by Rabbi Larry Tabick. Translations of the Torah and other commentaries are from Sefaria, except where otherwise noted. Translations of the Talmud are the Steinsaltz, William Davidson Talmud, on Sefaria.
The Torah returns to narrative in this parshah, during the climactic eighth day of the ordination of Aaron and his sons Nadav and Abihu. Sometime goes wrong during a ritual performed by Nadav and Abihu — they are consumed by fire.
Moses: said: “This is what the LORD has commanded that you do, that the Presence of the LORD may appear to you.”
Then Moses said to Aaron: “Come forward to the altar and sacrifice your sin offering and your burnt offering, making expiation for yourself and for the people, and sacrifice the people’s offering and make expiation for them, as the LORD has commanded.”
Some commentators have a problem with the combination of verse 6 and 7. The verses are either redundant as a prelude to the sacrifices of by Aaron and his sons or verse 6 is an odd insertion. (I don’t find it problematic, but it is the context for what follows.) One line of explanation is that Aaron hesitated after verse 6, and Moses has to prompt him again in verse 7. A different thought, explored by the Hasidic commentator we will read, is that verse 6 is a general statement about following mitzvot.
Yaakov Yizhak HaLevi Horowitz (Seer of Lublin), 18th century, Poland
We have to say that this is a verse on its own, and that it is not especially intelligible. According to what is said in [the commentary by] R. Moses Alsheich on the verse “Make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among you” [Exodus 25:8], the Holy One desired to live among us in fact, and not just in the Tabernacle. Israel desired the Tabernacle, and they presumed and expected that, through the Tabernacle, the Shechinah would come to dwell [among them], “that the Glory of the Eternal may appear.”
He [Moses] told them: Do not trust this, but only in the essential thing, which is [that] “this is the thing which the Eternal has commanded you to do” — it depends on the Torah; then “the Glory of the Eternal may appear.” No Tabernacle is required, and it is obvious that it does not depend on a Tabernacle, but only what you do of, “what the Eternal has commanded you.”
The message is that the Tabernacle and the sacrifices are something that the people desired to feel connection to God. The sacrifices and their location are not what is essential to connecting with God.
Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the LORD alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them.
And fire came forth from the LORD and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the LORD.
Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.” And Aaron was silent.
Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica, 19th century, Poland
if an individual has sinned, he or she could be referred to the individual [i.e., David], and if a community sins, they should be told: “Go to the community” [i.e., those who made the Golden Calf].
So too in the case of Nadab and Abihu: what is written in the Torah is there to teach the fear [of God] to the individual. They were innocent on account of their mother, who was the sister of Nahshon ben Amminadab, [and] from who would come the dynasty of the house of David. Now, “a king may break boundaries” provided that he trusts that his will is the will of God. [Thus,] they had periods of relying on their own will — for security comes from God. Therefore, in this manner has God demonstrated that no one should undertake any act without refining it seventyfold.
The language here is difficult. The message, in my reading, is that it may be okay to violate halacha for a higher purpose but you have to extremely careful about your motivations. There may be reasons to go beyond safe boundaries. Human-interpreted rules may not always be right, your ultimate trust is in God, not rules. It is easy to be deceived in such situations and confuse your motivations with God’s motivations. That confusion can be fatal.
We’ll look at an extended section of Talmud from a minor tractate that examines what is holy, loss, and grief.
Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai had five students, and he had a name for each of them. He called Eliezer ben Hyrcanus “the Plastered Pit,” because it never loses a drop, and “the Sealed Bottle,” because it keeps all of its wine. He called Yehoshua ben Hananya “the Triple Knot,” because it does not get severed easily. He called Yosei HaKohen “the Saint of the Generation.” He called Yishmael ben Hananya “the Oasis in the Desert,” which holds on to its water. (Happy is the student whose teacher praises him and speaks of his virtues!) He called Elazar ben Arach “the Flowing Stream” and “the Bubbling Brook,” for its waters overflow and go out into the world, as it says (Proverbs 5:16), “Your wellsprings will burst forth, and the streams will spill out onto the streets.”
He would also say: If all the sages of Israel were on one end of a scale and Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus was on the other end, he would outweigh them all. But Abba Shaul says in [Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai’s] name: If all the sages of Israel were on one end of a scale, and Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus was with them, but Rabbi Elazar ben Arach was on the other end – he would outweigh them all.
[Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai said [to his five students]: Go out and see what is the best path that a person should stay on, so that he can follow it into the World to Come.
Rabbi Eliezer came back and said: A good eye. Rabbi Yehoshua came back and said: A good friend. Rabbi Yosei came back and said: A good neighbor, good desires, and a good wife. Rabbi Shimon said: One who sees what is coming. Rabbi Elazar came back and said: A good heart toward Heaven, and a good heart toward others. [Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai] said to them: I prefer Rabbi Elazar ben Arach’s words, because I see all of your words contained within his words.
He said to them: Go out and see what is the evil path that a person should stay away from, so that he can enter into the World to Come. Rabbi Eliezer came back and said: An evil eye. Rabbi Yehoshua came back and said: An evil friend. Rabbi Yosei came back and said: An evil eye, an evil neighbor, and an evil wife. Rabbi Shimon came back said: One who borrows money and does not pay it back. For one who borrows from people will be punished by God, as it says (Psalms 37:21), “The wicked one borrows and does not repay; the righteous one is generous and keeps giving.” Rabbi Elazar came back and said: An evil heart toward Heaven, an evil heart toward the mitzvot, and an evil heart toward others. [Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai] said to them: I prefer Rabbi Elazar ben Arach’s words, because I see all of your words contained within his words.
When Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai’s son died, his students came in to comfort him. Rabbi Eliezer came in and sat before him and said: My master, if you please, may I say something? He said: Speak. So he said: Adam the first person had a son who died and he accepted comfort. And how do we know that he accepted comfort? For it says (Genesis 4:25), “And Adam knew his wife again.” So you, too, should accept comfort. He replied: Is it not enough that I have my own pain but that you need to remind me of Adam’s pain as well?
Rabbi Yehoshua came in and said to him: If you please, may I say something before you? He said: Speak. So he said: Job had sons and daughters, and they all died on the same day, and he accepted comfort. So you, too, should accept comfort. And how do we know that Job accepted comfort? For it says (Job 1:21), “The Eternal has given, and the Eternal has taken away. Blessed is the name of the Eternal.” He replied: Is it not enough that I have my own pain but that you have to remind me of Job’s pain as well?
Rabbi Yosei came in and sat before him and said: My master, if you please, may I say something? He said: Speak. So he said: Aaron had two older sons and they both died on the same day, and he accepted comfort, as it says (Leviticus 10:3), “And Aaron was silent,” and silence always indicates comfort. He replied: Is it not enough that I have my own pain but that you have to remind me of Aaron’s pain as well?
Rabbi Shimon came in and said: My master, if you please, may I say something? He said: Speak. So he said: King David had a son who died, and he accepted comfort. So you, too, should accept comfort. And how do we know that David accepted comfort? For it says (II Samuel 12:24), “David comforted his wife Bath Sheba, and he came to her and lay with her, and she gave birth to another son, and called him Solomon.” So you, too, should accept comfort. He replied: Is it not enough that I have my own pain but that you have to remind me of King David’s pain as well?
Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah came in. When [Rabbi Yohanan] saw him, he said to his steward: Take this vessel, and follow me to the bathhouse, because this is a great man, and I will not be able to withstand him.1Going to the bathhouse might indicate that Rabbi Yohanan’s mourning is about to end, as Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah will surely find a way to provide solace. So [Rabbi Elazar] came in and sat before [Rabbi Yohanan] and said: Let me give you a parable. To what can this be compared? [It can be compared] to a person to whom the king gave a deposit to hold. Every day he would cry and scream and say, Oy, when will I be free of this deposit? So it is with you, Rabbi. You had a son who read from the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings; the Mishnah; Halakhah; and Aggadah; and then was taken from the world free of sin. [Must you, then, accept consolation when you have returned a deposit whole?] He said: Rabbi Elazar, my son, you have comforted me as people are supposed to.
When they all left, Elazar said: I am going to Damasit, a beautiful place with good, sweet water. They said: We will go to Yavneh, a place where there is an abundance of scholars who love the Torah. So he went to Damasit, the beautiful place with good, sweet water, and his reputation in Torah study diminished. And they went to Yavneh, the place where there was an abundance of scholars who all loved the Torah, and their reputations in Torah study grew.