Rabbi Berel Wein
Rabbi Berel WeinCourtesy

The Torah has already described the tragedy of the family of Aaron, when his sons Nadav and Avihu died while performing incense burning on the day of the final dedication of the Mishkan/Tabernacle. So, why does the Torah return to the subject and mention it again in this week’s Torah reading?

The commentators over the ages, from the time of the Talmud onwards, have derived many explanations, laws and moral ideas from the repetition of this incident here in this parsha.

Since the Torah is limitless, eternal and speaks to all generations, I take the liberty of suggesting another idea to help us understand the depths of the Torah’s sensitivity to the human psyche and condition.

In a subtle but important way the Torah emphasizes that from now on everything that Aaron and his sons will do in the service of God and Israel, inside the holy Mishkan/Tabernacle or outside of it, will always be influenced by the tragedy they witnessed and experienced on the day their sons and brothers died. Moshe’s comment that Nadav and Avihu were holy and sanctified people, close to God, so to speak, only amplifies the tragedy and makes it more difficult to comprehend and rationalize.

For the rest of their lives, Aaron, his surviving family and the entire Jewish nation will be haunted by this tragic event. It will hover over every occurrence that will befall them, personally or nationally, for all time. Everything will now be encapsulated in the time frame of “after the death of the two sons of Aaron.” And this idea is implicit in the message of the Torah to us this week.

The Holocaust….the inexplicable iniquity of this tragedy haunts the Jewish people today, even decades after the fact. It seems that every accomplishment and shortcoming in Jewish life generally, and regarding the State of Israel particularly, is Holocaust driven. Everything is seen as being holy vengeance or justified retribution, as “remember and do not forget,” or “never again!”

There is no event that takes place in Jewish life today that does not have Holocaust overtones. We are always “achrei mot” - after the tragedy that brooks no explanation and constantly challenges our faith on one hand and our rationality on the other. It is as though the formal commemorations of the Holocaust are not that special and unique, hard as we try to make them so, because every day and every occurrence now is still just another form of that memorial.

Naturally, the formal commemoration of the Holocaust invokes again the emotional connection to this enormous national tragedy. That is why such a national day of mourning is justified and necessary. And this only enhances our realization that we are all living in the time of “achrei mot.” And this explains a great deal of the mood and behavior of the Jewish people in our time.

And, since October 7th, and with the war that we are engaged in now, “Achei mot” reflects the attitude and behavior of our people.