SALT - Thursday, 20 Nissan 5779 - April 25, 2019

  • Rav David Silverberg
[SALT for Friday is posted below].
            Parashat Acharei-Mot begins with the description of the special service performed by the kohen gadol on Yom Kippur, and it introduces this section by telling that these commands were given “after the death of Aharon’s two sons, when they approached the Lord and died.”  This refers, of course, to Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s two older sons who, on their first day serving as kohanim, brought an incense offering which God had not commanded, for which they were killed (Vayikra 10:1-2).
            The Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 20:8) cites Rabbi Elazar Ha-modai as noting the significance of the Torah’s making a point to clarify the reason why Nadav and Avihu deserved their tragic fate:
Come see how grave the death of Aharon’s sons was before the Almighty – for in every instance when He mentions their death, He mentions their failing.  Why all this?  In order not to allow people the possibility of saying that they were guilty of secret evil deeds for which they died.
After Nadav and Avihu’s death, people might have assumed that Aharon’s sons must have been guilty of more than just the single infraction of bringing an unwarranted incense offering to deserve such a harsh punishment.  God therefore made a point of repeatedly emphasizing that they were punished solely for offering incense, and not for any other misdeed.  (It should be noted that we indeed find Chazal attributing to Nadav and Avihu several other violations, including drinking wine before bringing an offering, and refusing to marry; Rabbi Elazar Ha-modai appears to express a different view, insisting that they were guilty only of bringing a prohibited incense offering.)
            When righteous people fail, it might be tempting to cynically scorn all ostensibly pious individuals.  We might be led to dismiss “piety” altogether as a façade, and allege that all those reputed to be righteous are, in fact, evil sinners.  Rather than hold evidently righteous people in high esteem, as role models who challenge us to reach higher, we could choose instead to point to the examples of “Nadav and Avihu,” reputable spiritual figures who failed, as demonstrating that all piety is a charade.  This way, we can conveniently absolve ourselves of the quest for spiritual greatness, seeing spiritual greatness as nothing more than a phony outward disguise.  Rabbi Elazar Ha-modai warns against this reaction, urging us not to utilize the failures of the righteous as a basis for dismissing altogether the possibility of righteousness.  The fact that Nadav and Avihu committed a grave offense does not undermine their accomplishments.  Falling far short of perfection is not the same as evil.  The Torah makes it very clear to us that evil great people are capable of grave failures, and expects us to recognize and condemn such failures while still recognizing and appreciating the greatness of the individuals.  And thus Rabbi Elazar Ha-modai teaches us to maintain a balanced perspective on “Nadav and Avihu,” on the unfortunate phenomenon of righteous individuals who commit grave mistakes, that we should acknowledge the mistakes without rejecting outright the possibility given to all human beings to pursue and achieve greatness.
            The opening section of Parashat Acharei-Mot outlines the procedure of the avodat Yom Ha-kippurim, the special service performed by the kohen gadol on Yom Kippur to earn atonement on behalf of the nation.  One of the unusual features of this service is the sa’ir ha-mishtalei’ach, the goat which was sent out into the desert east of Jerusalem and killed, symbolizing the “destruction” of the nation’s misdeeds.  The Torah instructs that the kohen gadol should place his hands on the goat’s head as though placing all of Benei Yisrael’s sins on the goat, which would then bring the sins, as it were, into the wilderness, signifying their banishment (16:21-22).
            Tanna De-bei Eliyahu Zuta (19) draws an association between this sa’ir (goat) and the nation of Edom – the descendants of Esav – which was situated in the region of Se’ir (Bereishit 36:8).  When Benei Yisrael repent on Yom Kippur, Tanna De-bei Eliyahu comments, God takes their sins and places them on Esav, charging him with Benei Yisrael’s misdeeds.  But Esav then protests, asking, “How much strength do I have, that you place upon me all the iniquities of my brother Yaakov?”  At that point, Tanna De-bei Eliyahu concludes, God places Benei Yisrael’s sins on Esav’s garments.
            One approach taken to understand this Midrashic passage is that it refers to the partial blame borne by the enemy nations for our wrongdoing.  As a result of our repentance, God transfers the “blame” for our sins onto “Esav,” the enemy nations whose pressure and intimidation often make it difficult for us to properly devote ourselves to mitzva observance.  However, as the Midrash indicates, there is a limit to the blame that can be placed upon “Esav.”  After all, we do not commit sins only because of the pressure exerted on us by other peoples.  Our moral and spiritual failings result also from our own faults and shortcomings.  At a certain point, “Esav” can justifiably absolve himself of blame for our sins, which are of our own making.  God then places the blame on Esav’s “garments” – on the appeal and attractiveness of Esav’s way of life, which so often leads us away from the Torah way of life.  Beyond directly exerting pressure on Am Yisrael, “Esav” can also lure us through his “garments,” by making his values, beliefs and lifestyle seem preferable and advantageous to ours.  And thus even when the other nations’ direct pressure cannot be blamed for our misdeeds, our sins can be partially blamed on the nations’ “garments,” the misleading, attractive image they project, which can cause us to question our own beliefs and practices and abandon them in favor of those of other peoples.  (See a variation of this approach in Rav Yisrael Yehuda Karfunkel’s Chemdat Yisrael)
            If so, then Tanna De-bei Eliyahu here alerts us to the lure of the “garments” of other peoples, to the way their pride and confidence in their lifestyle could cause us to lose pride and confidence in ours.  We must retain our steadfast, passionate commitment to our traditions even in the face of the “garments” of “Esav,” the lure and appeal of other nations’ values and conduct, and confidently trust that we are fulfilling God’s will and living the life He wants us to live.