Ohr Torah on the Parsha: Transcendence and Tragedy

Torah lights from Efrat, Gush Etzion in the Judean Hills.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin,


This week's Torah reading presents an awesome and awful scene of the heights of ecstasy merged with the depth of despair: exaltation together with extinction, ineffable transcendence alongside inexplicable tragedy. The desert Sanctuary is being dedicated, sacrifices to the Almighty are offered, and Moses and Aaron bless the entire nation. A divine fire comes forth from the heavens and consumes the offerings; the people see, sing out with joy and exaltation, and fall on their faces in gratitude to the Almighty who has miraculously signaled His acceptance of the offerings.

Two sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, caught up in the religious excitement of the moment, take a censer, place upon it fire and incense, and offer an additional tribute to G-d. In effect, they respond to the fire of Divine acceptance and grace with their own extra fire of human fervor and commitment. The Divine reaction is as immediate as it is imponderable: "And a fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed them; they died before the Lord" (Leviticus 10:1-2).

The intermingling of emotions defies the imagination: at the climax of the exodus from Egypt, and the moment of tribute to the High Priest Aaron, symbol of Divine protection and generational continuity, Aaron's two beloved sons are taken from him. This appears to be a gratuitous and merciless act on the part of G-d.

Most of our commentators attempt to justify the deaths by attributing some fatal flaw in the actions and characters of Nadav and Avihu. The Biblical text, however, makes no such attempt: "And Moses said to Aaron, 'It is as the Lord spoke saying, by means of those closest to me shall I be sanctified and in front of the entire nations shall I be glorified..." (Leviticus 10:3).

Rashi, the Biblical commentator par excellence, takes Moses' statement at face value. He does not seek to rationalize why these youths deserved their tragic fate; he merely provides the source of Moses' explanation: "Where did the Lord speak? 'And I shall be encountered there with the children of Israel and I shall be sanctified by My glory' (Exodus 29:43). Do not read the text 'by My glory' but rather read it, 'by those who glorify Me.'

Rashi continues: Moses said to Aaron, 'Aaron my brother, I knew that this Temple would be sanctified by those most beloved of G-d. I would have thought that it would have been by me or by you. Now I see that they (Nadav and Avihu) were greater than us" (Rashi, ad loc).

Aaron's response is Biblically reported as "Vayidom Aharon - and Aaron was silent". Perhaps this heavily pregnant silence is indicative of Aaron's feeling that if he says what he wants to say, and rails against Whom he wishes to rail, he will irrevocably destroy the most precious relationship of his life. Or perhaps it was simply the silence of an unasked question to which there is no satisfactory answer...

The theological construct expressed by Rashi harks back to the haunting Biblical scene, at the very dawn of our history, of the "covenant between the pieces." In the introduction to the covenant comes the Divine guarantee, "I am the Lord who took you out of Ur Kasdim to give you this land as an inheritance" (Genesis 15:7). However, what immediately follows is the blood, smoke and fire of sacrifice, the prophesy that Jewish redemption requires a prelude of alienation, servitude and affliction on the part of the nation. Then, as a result of his awesome vision, a dark fear descends upon Abraham.

To be sure, the Covenant concludes with a confirmation of our continuity and territorial integrity; but our salvation will only come at the price of ultimate sacrifice: "And so the sun set, and a heavy cloud overcast. And behold, a smoking furnace of ashes and a torch of fire which passed between these (bloodied) pieces. On that day the Lord established His covenant with Abram, saying, 'to your seed have I given this land from the River Nile of Egypt to the great River, the Euphrates' " (Genesis 15:17-18).

From this perspective, we understand the intermingling of the sacrificial blood of the paschal sacrifice with the joyous freedom of the wine which together mark our celebration of Passover, the "Hillel sandwich" which mixes the matzah of redemption together with the bitter herbs of suffering. And from this perspective we understand why Yom HaZikaron, Israel's Memorial Day for her fallen martyrs of the IDF, enters into—and merges with—Yom HaAtzmaut, Israeli Independence Day. And, as amazing as it is, parents, spouses and orphans almost uniformly respond to these ultimate sacrifices as did Aaron of old, with a heavy, pregnant and accepting silence.

As a very young boy, I remember attending the very first Shabbat circumcision ceremony celebrated by the Kloizenberg-Tzanz Hassidim after they located for a brief time in Bedford Stuyvesant, where the community's remnants emigrated after the Holocaust before they settled in Netanya. The Rebbe, of blessed memory, recited the circumcision blessings, and with tears coursing down his cheeks could barely be heard as he choked upon the words, "And I see you wallowing in your blood; and I declare unto you, by your blood shall you live, by your blood shall you live." (Ezekiel 16: 6)

And then the Rebbe spoke. He explained that the Hebrew word damayich, "by your blood" can also be translated "by your silence" (dom is attentive silence, while dam is blood). We continue to live as Jews, we propagate and plant and build, because—despite our tragic sacrifices — we remain silent before G-d, as did our forbear Aaron.

"However," he continued, looking upwards and speaking with a voice which seemed to shake the very foundations of the building, "You, G-d, dare not remain silent. As the sweet Psalmist King David declared, 'Lord, You must not be silent (al domi lakh), You must not hush Your voice, G-d, You must not be quiet, Because, behold, Your enemies are shouting out loud... (Psalms 83:2-3). You, O G-d, must cry out, I have forgiven, according to Your words '. You, O G-d, must cry out from the ramparts, 'For a short moment did I forsake you and with great compassion do I gather you, says 'the Lord your Redeemer' (Isaiah 54, 7-8)!