By Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum, Hebrew Academy of Cleveland
After the death of Aharon’s two sons when they approached before Hashem, and they died. (16:1)
The sudden deaths of Nadav and Avihu – during what was to be their greatest spiritual moment – are among the most mystifying and disturbing tragedies recorded by the Torah. These two spiritual giants were about to ascend to a previously unprecedented pinnacle of spiritual service. They were on track to set the standard for future Kohanim. Something went wrong; the service was not perfect and, as a result, Nadav and Avihu died in what became an incredible Kiddush Hashem, sanctification of Hashem’s Name. Chazal delve into the “imperfection” which catalyzed their deaths. They suggest a number of explanations concerning what may be considered their “transgression.” Whatever the “sin,” it was clearly only relative to their elevated spiritual status.
The Torah uses the words “strange fire” to describe their error. Nadav and Avihu died when they offered a “strange fire” in the newly-inaugurated Mishkan. That’s it: a strange fire. For Nadav and Avihu, however, it was a fire which Hashem had not explicitly commanded them to build in the Mishkan. We must attempt to understand why they acted in such a “reckless” manner. Chazal teach us that, in some manner, Nadav and Avihu had transcended the spiritual level of their mentors: Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon HaKohen. Chazal then proceed to portray them in a somewhat less commendable manner.
In the Talmud Sanhedrin 52a, Chazal teach that when Nadav and Avihu walked behind Moshe and Aharon, they would say, “When are those two old men going to die, so that we can lead the Jewish people?” Which is accurate: Were Nadav and Avihu great tzadikim, very righteous, or overly pretentious?
Horav Noach Weinberg, zl, explains their actions in the following manner. Chazal teach us that each Jew should believe, Bishvili nivra ha’olam, “The world was created for me.” This means that each of us is obligated to view the world as our personal responsibility. Furthermore, a person’s responsibility vis-?-vis a given problem begins the moment that he becomes cognizant of the problem. The issue will not resolve itself. In other words, one is responsible to act, regardless of the level of his resources and abilities. An individual’s lack of skill or limited finances does not absolve him of this responsibility.
With this in mind, Rav Weinberg explains Nadav and Avihu’s reaction to the leadership of Moshe and Aharon. They observed what they perceived to be a deficiency within the Jewish people, which Moshe and Aharon had not identified. Their reaction was: We will do nothing about the problem because it is not “our” problem. We are not the leaders. When Moshe and Aharon die, and we become the leaders, we will address the problem. They saw what Moshe and Aharon did not see; hence, in a sense, they were greater than their mentors. They did not, however, act proactively to correct the problem.
The Torah’s approach to a problem is that the moment we recognize that it exists, we must immediately do everything within our power to resolve it. This is our responsibility. It is not a product of position or station in life. Pinchas perceived a desecration of Hashem’s Name taking place, and he acted immediately. He did not call a meeting or take a consensus of opinion. He turned to Moshe, and Moshe told him to “do it.” If Nadav and Avihu saw something troubling, they should have immediately gone to Moshe and Aharon, pointed it out and wait for a response. After proposing their own solution, they could have asked permission from their mentors to react. Unfortunately, they ignored the situation, because they felt it was not their responsibility.
Some people do not take responsibility; they are afraid to act upon their own initiative, even though they have correctly identified a problem, because they are afraid of failure. This is a realistic fear that often places a stranglehold on people, stunting their success. When one does nothing he cannot fail, but he is also unable to succeed. The other people fear success, because success breeds responsibility, and responsibility can lead to failure.
Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski quotes a story he heard from his father, the Milwaukee Rebbe, zl. In elementary school/cheder in Europe, the rebbe would often hit/spank those students who were undisciplined or lazy. Once, a man who was observing the class saw the rebbe ask a young boy to name the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The child remained silent. “Name that letter!” the rebbe demanded. The child continued to be unresponsive. The teacher whacked the child and asked the question again. The child refused to reply. His continued silence was met with another dose of corporal punishment. After several futile demands and blows, the teacher gave up.
The observer went over to the young boy and asked, “Tell me, do you really not know the name of the first letter?”
“Of course, I know. It is aleph,” the boy replied.
“Why, in Heavens sake, did you not say so and spare yourself the beatings?” the man asked.
“Because there is no end to the question. I will say aleph, and he will ask me the next letter. I will say bais, and he will want more. I figured I would put a halt to the questioning right at the beginning.” The Rebbe concluded, “Sometimes a person accepts punishment at the beginning to avoid having to go on.”
Some people are actually afraid of responsibility. Success breeds success, which engenders expansion, which, in turn, creates added responsibility. Certain individuals so fear failure, and are so devastated by even the thought of failure, that they sabotage their venture just to halt the process. Those who counsel people can attest to individuals who have destroyed valuable relationships in order to precipitate a rejection. Instead of working on a relationship, trying to make it work, the person undermines it, so that he will not be rejected. It sounds weird, but, unfortunately, many people are overcome by such fears. Some people cannot cope with the suspense of waiting for rejection, so they foolishly accelerate the process. If you do not say aleph, you do not have to worry about the rest of the alphabet.
Yes, there are those who fear success, because they fear responsibility; in reality, they really fear failure. If they would only take the time and employ the patience to analyze the situation in order to confront their demons, they would likely overcome their fears and begin to shoulder responsibility. Then, once they taste the sweet flavor of success, they will no longer hide from the “aleph,” enabling them to assume appropriate achrayus, responsibility.
Speak to Aharon, your brother; he may not come at all times into the Sanctuary. (16:2)
The Torah seems to have taken an indirect approach to prohibiting Aharon’s entrance into the Kodesh HaKodoshim, Holy of Holies, during the year. Actually, he only went in on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. It would have been simpler just to state this fact, rather than to use the phrase b’chol eis, “at all times.” Chazal identify the words b’chol eis, of the pasuk, Ashrei shomrei mishpat, oseh tzedakah b’chol eis, “Praiseworthy are those who maintain justice, who perform righteousness at all times” (Tehillim 6:3) as a reference to one who supports his wife and children. This is constant “charity,” because he sustains them at all times. The Shlah HaKadosh uses this idea as the basis for a homiletic rendering of our pasuk. One might think that he can eschew his tzedakah obligations by claiming his constant commitment to supporting his wife and children. The Torah counters his claim, saying, “He may not come (with the excuse of) ‘all times;’ he may not use the support of his wife and children, which he stipulates occurs at ‘all times,’ as an excuse to refrain from fulfilling his charitable responsibilities.” It will not work. He must support the poor – regardless of his financial commitments at home.
Those seeking to absolve themselves from carrying out their communal obligations often employ “wives and children” as an excuse. We recognize it as a ploy to abstain from giving charity to those in need. It is a shameful excuse, a regrettably common one. Deplorably, specifically those individuals who use this excuse are present neither for their families nor for their communities. They have only one objective on their radar screens: themselves.
Speak to Aharon and to his sons and to all Bnei Yisrael and say to them: This is the matter which Hashem has commanded, saying… (17:2)
Moshe Rabbeinu conveyed the mitzvos to Klal Yisrael by repeating Hashem’s own words. He then elaborated upon them. This elaboration forms the basis for Torah She Baal Peh, the Oral Law. When we peruse the text of the pasuk, we note the presence of an extra word that does not seem to have a place. This is the word leimor, “saying.” Since the Torah already said, V’amarta aleihem, “and say to them,” it is redundant to conclude with the word, “saying.” In his Od Yosef Chai, Horav Yosef Chaim, zl, m’Baghdad, explains that the Torah is alluding to the attitude we should employ when performing mitzvos. Some mitzvos seem difficult to do: physically, financially, and even emotionally. The Torah is enjoining us to transcend our pressing feelings of arduousness in order to view mitzvos as unparalleled, wonderful experiences which establish a bond between us and Hashem. This is hinted by the word leimor, which can be broken up into two words: lo, mar; not bitter. Mitzvos are not bitter; they are sweet.
In his commentary in the Haggadah, Rav Yosef Chaim relates the following story. There was a pious Jew who was very delicate and fastidious. He could not tolerate anything that had a vestige of bitterness to it, to the point that when he once had been compelled to swallow a bitter pill, he fainted.
The man was asked how he was able to eat Marror, bitter herbs, on Pesach. What about Marror defied his delicate palate? The man replied that he did not experience any bitter aftertaste from Marror. In fact, it tasted sweet! “A mitzvah is a privilege; one that applies once a year is an awesome opportunity to serve Hashem. How could it possibly be bitter?” This is what Torah teaches us: leimor / lo mar. Torah observance is not bitter. It is inherently sweet.
You shall be holy…every man shall revere his mother and his father. (19:2,3)
The Talmud Kiddushin 30 teaches us that three partners create a person: Hashem, his father and his mother. Hashem enjoins him to be cognizant and respectful of each member of this partnership. By observing the Kedoshim tiheyu, “You shall be holy,” one carries out his responsibility to Hashem. The phrase, Ish imo v’aviv tira’u, “A man, his father and mother he shall fear,” is the exhortation concerning the other partners, the ones who brought him into this world. This, explains Horav Meir, zl, m’Premishlan, is the relationship between being holy to Hashem and fearing one’s parents.
When Horav Shlomo Eigar’s son, Rav Leibele, left for the chassidic court of Kotzk and its Rebbe, his father was about to place an injunction of Kibbud av – binding him by the mitzvah of honoring one’s father – against his going. Rav Shlomo had strongly negative feelings against the Chassidus movement. When word of this parental injunction reached the Kotzker Rebbe, zl, the Rebbe remarked, “What a ‘partner’ does is done. Hashem is also a partner, and He facilitated R’Leibele’s arrival in Kotzk. The “other partner” cannot alter this.”
Rav Shlomo was despondent over his son’s decision, considering it a tragedy of epic proportion. He decided to travel to his father, Horav Akiva Eiger, who was the gadol ha’dor, pre-eminent leader of the generation, and solicit his advice. He described the terrible “tragedy” to his father, explaining that his son must have snapped. The Chassidic sect was not religious, and the chassidim were guilty of spreading a false culture, antithetical to traditional Judaism.
Rav Akiva Eiger was disturbed by his son’s blanket statements. Rav Shlomo was an outstanding Torah scholar and pious Jew. He was troubled by such statements emanating from him. He told his son that it is prohibited to accept lashon hora, slander, about an individual Jew, and certainly about a group of Jews. Since he saw how much the entire debacle bothered his son, however, he would travel to Poland to speak with his grandson. He would then determine whether there was a problem. Travel was not easy, and Rav Akiva Eiger was no longer a young man. Such a trip would take its toll on him, but he felt that he had to determine for himself the veracity of his son’s statements. He had to see for himself whether his grandson had gone off the derech, left the Torah way of life.
Rav Leibele was shocked to greet his distinguished guest. What could his revered grandfather want that he would put his health in danger by making such a trip? Rav Akiva Eiger embraced his grandson, kissed him and said, “When I meet one of my descendants, my custom is first to speak with him in learning. Only afterwards do we make time for pleasantries. He began, “The halachah is that one does not blow Shofar on Shabbos, because of Gezeirah d’Rabbah, the decree of Rabbah, who feared that one might forget and carry the Shofar four cubits in the reshus ha’rabim, public domain. A similar idea applies to Lulav. What troubles me is the following: In their commentary to the Talmud Shabbos 5b, Tosfos cite a question quoted in the Yerushalmi. According to Ben Azzai who opines that mehaleich k’omed dami, “One who is in the process of walking, who takes, say, two steps, is considered by Ben Azzai to have started and stopped a few times. Each time he places his foot down, he is considered to have placed his body down and come to a halt; and each time he has lifted his foot, he is considered to have lifted his body. According to this, how can Ben Azzai hold a person liable for transporting four cubits in a public domain on Shabbos? Each stride is considered a separate akirah and hanachah, lifting and placing, which is the primary criteria for liability for carrying on Shabbos. One must lift the object in one domain and place it in another. Ben Azzai separates each step, so there never occurs an akirah followed by a hanachah four cubits later. The Yerushalmi answers that, according to Ben Azzai, it must occur through the medium of jumping. One hops four amos in one stride.”
Rav Akiva Eiger looked at his grandson and asked, “We know that our sages do not issue a gezeirah, decree, in the event that the possibility of a prohibited occurrence is lo shechiach, unusual. Why would they prohibit blowing the Shofar on Shabbos or shaking the Lulav on Shabbos, because someone might carry it four cubits, when according to Ben Azzai this is only possible by jumping? Since the prohibition can only be realized in an atypical manner, Chazal will not prohibit it.”
Rav Leibele listened respectfully to the question, but was very passionate in his response. “Zaide, we are talking about Tekias Shofar, whose sound pierces the Heavens and creates a stir in the Heavenly spheres. It frustrates Satan, as it mixes him up. Lulav is not much different. How one toils to find a perfect Esrog, so that he can carry out the mitzvah of taking a beautiful fruit to serve Hashem! When a person seeks to understand the halachos concerning this mitzvah, he will do anything to locate a Torah scholar from whom he can learn. Is there a question regarding jumping? Who would not ‘jump’ to perform any of these mitzvos? I would not consider this an unusual act. After all, it is for a mitzvah!”
Rav Akiva Eiger stared deeply into the eyes of his grandson and replied, “I have another explanation, but – from your reply – I see that the approach taken by the chassidim to mitzvah performance is quite in sync with the Torah. They seek to add life, passion, feeling, emotion and joy to mitzvah performance. I will tell your father that he will have much nachas from you!”
To put it bluntly, Chassidus has come a long way since then. It is an accepted, meaningful and inspirational approach to serving the Almighty. This writer is not going to undertake to compare the yeshivishe approach to avodas Hashem, serving the Almighty, to the chassidic approach. Rather, we will mention one individual who seemed to synthesize the two in a harmonious passion of service to Hashem. Horav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, zl, the Menahel of Mesifta Torah Vodaath, was the primary architect of Torah in America. The mushrooming of Torah throughout this country is in no small part due to his efforts seven decades ago. He set the standards for outreach; he made the rules; he taught us how the seeds of Torah could be sown in the spiritually barren wasteland that was America in those days.
Rav Shraga Feivel underscored the importance of feeling, both joy and pathos. When he spoke, it was with dramatic emotion, and when he sang, the impact was even greater. He would stress the importance of the Chassidic emphasis on such things as joy in mitzvah performance and rejoicing on Shabbos and Yom Tov. Emotional and joyous singing and davening helped to achieve this goal.
When Rav Shraga Feivel sang a niggun, tune, the mood in the room was transformed to an exalted spiritual experience. As he danced with a group of students at a wedding, one of the distinguished Roshei Yeshiva who was present commented, “He has done more with his dancing than others have achieved with their drashos, sermons.” In the last year of his life, when he was in very poor health, suffering from a number of illnesses, he did not refrain from leading the students in fervent dancing on Shavuous. When his son-in-law, fearing another heart attack, attempted to stop him, Rav Shraga Feivel pushed him aside, insisting, “Please do not stop me. Did I not build the Mesivta with singing and dancing? And so I will continue. Let my heart burst, but let the boys learn how to dance.”
Horav Shlomo Heyman, zl, Rosh Yeshiva of Mesifta Torah Vodaath and himself a product of the leading Lithuanian Yeshivos, was once queried why Torah Vodaath did not have a mussar seder, period set aside for studying ethical development and character refinement, as was the dominant practice in Lithuania. He replied, “The Shalosh Seudos with Rav Shraga Feivel, with its accompanying singing, has as much power to singe off the impurities from the soul and instill love of Hashem as the study of mussar.”
You shall not cheat your fellow and you shall not rob; you shall not withhold a worker’s wage with you until morning. You shall not curse the deaf. (19:13,14)
Sequence and positioning of pesukim often play critical roles in the understanding of a mitzvah. The Torah juxtaposes the prohibition against cursing a deaf person upon the injunction against the withholding of a worker’s wages. The Baal HaTurim explains the connection as exhorting us to refrain from acting inappropriately against one who has wronged us. An individual has labored hard and long, toiled in the hot field, performing back-breaking work for a salary that is meager; it is all that he and his family have. His work has been faithful – not wasting a precious moment from his hourly wages. Now, he wants to get paid. He has bills, and he must put food on the table – not luxuries, just plain food. He waits for that paycheck. “Soon,” his employer says. “Be patient. It is in the mail.” He expresses whatever excuse he can conjure, but the check does not arrive. He has no money to pay the bills or to put food on the table. His boss is something else. As he is about to curse him, he reminds himself of the Torah’s prohibition against cursing the deaf, and he refrains from uttering a statement willing something terrible to happen to his employer.
Horav Chaim Zaitchik, zl, comments that the Torah sets up parameters for what is permitted and for what is not – regardless of how justified the aggrieved person may be. Unquestionably, the worker deserves his pay. He toiled for it. His entitlement to remuneration, however, does not warrant a violent verbal backlash for his employer’s failure to act with simple human decency. Human nature does not lend itself to such limits. A prevalent attitude among some suggests that, if an individual had been slighted by someone, he is now permitted to retaliate in any way that he pleases. It is open season against his offender. Limitations and parameters have no meaning because, after all, he had been hurt by the other person.
The Torah does not agree with this manifestation of human nature. A slight kink in a person’s armor of human decency and uprightness does not render him a target for exploitation. One shortcoming is no indication that everything else about him is in organ failure. We must continue acting towards the person as if he is still a moral, decent, and respectable person. This is the meaning of parameters. The Torah sets boundaries. One who refrains from paying his worker on time might not be the finest person, but he is still not to be the subject of our vicious tongue. Hashem will address the issue at the proper time. We need not worry.
Rav Zaitchik quotes another pasuk with a similar connotation, probably one to which we can also regrettably relate: “But if there will be a man who hates his fellow, and ambushes him and rises up against him, and strikes him mortally and he dies… Your eye shall not pity him; you shall remove the innocent blood from Yisrael; and it shall be good for you… You shall not move a boundary of your fellow” (Devarim 19:11-14). Once again, the Baal HaTurim notes a juxtaposition between what seems to be two unrelated laws: the prohibition of enlarging one’s boundary line upon the premeditated murderer who is to be executed. He explains the relationship. The individual should not assume that, since the murderer is being executed anyway, he might as well help himself to some of his property. It does not work that way in Torah law. There are parameters; moving my boundary line or basically stealing someone’s land – even if he is a convicted, soon to be executed murderer – is forbidden.
What right does a murderer have to land? If we are permitted to execute him, then we certainly may confiscate his land. This is how the yetzer hora, the “righteous” evil inclination, presents its case for stealing someone’s property. The Torah responds that there are parameters, and stealing is not permitted – even if the property belongs to a convicted murderer. A dispensation provided by the Torah does not give an individual license to abuse the criterion established by the Torah.
It may happen that a well-meaning, but weak, member of the observant community falls on hard times, due to either his own ineptitude or greed. He forgets who he is and resorts to deception which leaves his fellow, or even close friend, with a much-decreased bank account. The situation can, at times, be remedied either through a bais din or a secular court. It does not allow, however, for the victim to curse the deceiver or his family or to take the law into his own hands. We should trust in Hashem to address our loss and continue to live by the parameters which the Torah has established.