Rabbi David Walk
In the first of this week's double parsha, we begin with a complex series of laws about Yom Kippur. These detailed actions form the core of the massive Musaf service on our Day of Atonement. What's interesting about this material is how passive the Jewish nation is. We are observers or witnesses to all this divine service being performed by the Cohen Gadol. This is not only highly unusual for our very hands on religion, but smacks of the practices of other religions. However, that's not what I'd like to discuss this week. I'm interested in the way the Torah establishes the time frame for these rites, in a way we wouldn't have expected.
The presentation begins by reminding us and Aharon of one the most painful moments in the post exodus experience. Moshe is told that the instructions to Aharon are taking place after the deaths of his two sons, Nadav and Avihu, which took place on the first of Nissan, six months distant from Yom Kippur. And in the teaching of these laws Moshe and Aharon are cautioned to follow these instructions carefully or the officiating Cohen will also be killed. Curiously the fact that all of these instructions pertain to Yom Kippur is only announced at the end of the section (Leviticus 16:29), when the verse states: And this shall be as an eternal statute for you; in the seventh month, on the tenth of the month, you shall afflict yourselves, and you shall not do any work. Even then it's still ambiguous, because the verse could be read in such a way that afflicting of one's soul on the tenth of the seventh month is separate from all these rules which may be in affect at other times. Why should this be?
According to Rashi the emphasis on the deaths of Aharon's sons is a warning to future high Priests. Here's the Rashi on verse one: What does the reference to the deaths of Nadav and Avihu teach us? Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah illustrated the idea with a parable of a patient, whom a physician came to visit, and said to him, "Do not eat cold foods, and do not lie down in a cold, damp place." Then, another physician visited him, and advised him, "Do not eat cold foods or lie down in a cold, damp place, so that you will not die the way so-and-so died." The latter warned the patient more effectively than the former. Therefore, Scripture says, "after the death of Aaron's two sons" to teach the danger [Torath Kohanim 16:3]. This idea is fascinating but doesn't really answer our question about why this information begins the instructions for our national day of atonement rather than giving the date and clearly identifying Yom Kippur.
However there's another Midrash which seems to say that the connection between their deaths and Yom Kippur services is even greater. In the Jerusalem Talmud (Yoma Chapter 1, Halacha 1) it says: Why are their deaths mentioned in connection with Yom Kippur? It teaches us that the deaths of the righteous effect atonement just like Yom Kippur. Many rabbis would say that this atonement is mystical, almost magical, based on the power that these Zadikim wield in heaven. However, the Torah Temima (Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, 1860-1941) suggests that it isn't the death per se which causes the atonement. The healing spirit comes from the mourning exhibited by the community over this great loss. Rabbi Epstein says that this respect for the fallen is really an honor to God, and it is these positive pious feelings which bring about a profoundly accepted repentance. Anyway you look at it, the deaths of Zadikim bring about their own mini-Yom Kippur.
Normally rabbinic tradition connects the eternal power of pardon on Yom Kippur to the forgiveness granted the Jews after the sin of the Golden Calf. It was on this date, eighty days after the great betrayal, that the Jews received the second set of tablets containing the Ten Commandments. This closed the books on that great crime against God. Instead our reading seems to attach the energy of forgiveness to the removal of Nadav and Avihu from this worldly realm. This doesn't seem to make sense, because the first Yom Kippur was six months after the exodus from
So, what do the deaths of these mistaken but sincere young men have to teach us? Well, first of all, the lesson which Rashi teaches, namely to be very careful in our worship of God. In our zeal, we can replace God's instructions with our own whims. But in a deeper sense, I agree with the Midrash from the Yerushalmi. We recall the tragedies of our nation to learn from those heartrending events. If we can derive lessons from the deaths of those who preceded us, then in a larger sense they have not died in vain. The inspiration and example of these departed souls can be a beacon to us and truly turn their memory into a blessing for us all.
This idea is always important whether on Rosh Chodesh Nissan when the deaths actually happened, on Yom Kipur when they inform our liturgical behavior or any time that we recall them. However, this concept is especially potent in this time period. During these days between Pesach and Shavuot we commemorate Yom Hashoah for the 6 million victims of the Holocaust, Yom Hazikaron for the fallen of the modern State of Israel, thirty-three days of deaths for the students of Rabbi Akiva, the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and the martyrdom of the Jewish communities of Speier, Mayence and Worms at the hands of the Crusaders.
So, the notion that the deaths of the pious and pure can act as an aid to repentance and atonement is always important and moving, but during these spring days it is a constant presence, hopefully, inspiring us to greater spiritual heights.
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