Thursday, May 04, 2006

Aharei Mot (Midrash)

Why Did the Sons of Aaron die?

This week’s parshah opens with a description of the sacrifices offered in the Temple on Yom Kippur, which is in turn introduced by the words “… after the death of the two sons of Aaron”—referring to the tragic and bizarre incident of the death of Nadav and Avihu for offering “strange fire” on the very day of the dedication of the Sanctuary, as described in Leviticus 10. A whole group of midrashim, both here and in Shemini, attempt to decipher the whys and wherefores of these strange deaths. Some elevate Nadav and Avihu to the level of great saints (“with those close to me I shall be sanctified”; Lev 10:3), theocentric mystics incapable of living in this material world, while others describe them in harshly critical terms. Thus, Leviticus Rabbah 20.10:

R. Levi said: They were arrogant. Many women remained unmarried waiting for them. What did they say? Our father’s brother is king, our mother’s brother is a prince, our father is high priest, and we are two vice priests. What woman is suitable for us?! R. Menahama said in the name of R. Yehoshua b. Nehemiah: “Their young men were devoured by fire” [Ps 78:63]. Why were their young men devoured by fire? Because “their maidens were not praised [in marriage song]” [ibid.].

A familiar enough scene: the young man who remains a bachelor because no girl is good enough for him. Moreover, in our own world, where young people make their own marriage choices, where men and women, often of different social backgrounds, mingle freely, where extensive dating and “relationships” is the norm, and where the arranged marriage is unknown outside of highly cloistered circles, the social meaning and class stratification of marriage is greatly muted. But as recently as the nineteenth century (see, for example, the novels from that period, of Jane Austen or George Eliot or Thomas Hardy—or of the Russians), the niceties of social class and the shocking level of daring required to marry up or down, were far more important elements in courtship. Here, the arrogance of the two brothers is portrayed in strident terms; all the more so, in light of the heritage of their uncle Moses, who was “very humble,” or of their father Aaron, who “loved peace and pursued peace.” Where did this haughtiness come from? Quite often, we find that a great man who is entirely involved in pursuing and realizing a sublime vision, creating something new, totally dedicates his life to these values, is indeed utterly without haughtiness or a sense self-importance. At times, the second generation, who are born into the successful life project which is of great importance to society, begin to think of themselves as “heirs” of the great man’s work, as princes belonging to an uncrowned aristocracy. Perhaps this is what happened to Nadav and Avihu.

And also from this: “And to Moses he said: Ascend to the Lord, you and Aaron and Nadav and Avihu…” [Exod 24:1]. This teaches that Aaron and Moses walked in front, and Nadav and Avihu after them, and all Israel after them. And they said, “When will these two old men die and we shall be able to rule over the public?” R. Yudan said in the name of R. Aibu: They said it openly to one another. R. Pinhas said: They thought it in their hearts. R. Berekhiah said: The Holy One blessed be He said to them: “Do not boast of the morrow” [Prv 27:1]. Many young colts have died and their hides were made into coverings for their mothers…

The portrait continues, showing that their unbridled arrogance and ambition does not even bypass envy and jealousy of Moses and Aaron. Their impatience to assume the mantle of their father and uncle overcomes their filial piety, and they openly ask, “When will the old men die?” Such protracted waiting may often continue well into middle age (as witness Prince Charles of the UK) Again, we find the would-be heirs focused far more on their self and sense of their own importance rather than on the idea itself, which was their father’s and uncle’s whole world. Another example: the two sons of the priest Eli, in 1 Samuel 2:11-25, Pinhas and Hophni, who exploited their position as priests for both material and sexual advantage, harassing the “maidens who served in the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.” Or in the Hasidic world, where inheritance of the once-charismatic mantle of Rebbe has become the norm, it is not uncommon to find dynasties that were once led by great Torah teachers graced with the holy spirit becoming debased and corrupt, by mediocre or political wheeler-dealer grandsons. Israeli political life, too, lately seems plagued by am inordinate number of “princes” and “princesses,” children of the elite of various parties (especially if the late parent was an assassinated martyr!). On the other hand, there are other cases of sons of great men who are simply overwhelmed by the parental heritage, and turn shy, inward, withdrawn—as in one reading of Father Yitzhak.

The Paradox of Yom Kippur

The second chapter of this week’s midrash brings a series of midrashim on Psalm 27, culminating in this one on Yom Kippur—which is, in fact, the reason for it being brought here. Lev. Rab. 21.4:

[For David. The Lord is my light and salvation, whom shall I fear?” (Ps 27:1)]. The Rabbis interpreted this verse regarding Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. “My light” on Rosh Hashana, and “my salvation” on Yom Kippur. “Whom shall I fear”—“My strength and song is the Lord” [Exod 15:2]. “When evildoers approach me” [Ps ibid.]—these are the princes of the nations of the world. “To eat my flesh”—because the princes of the nations of the world come and bring accusations against Israel before the Holy One blessed be He, saying to Him: Master of the Universe, these worship idols, and those worship idols; these perform sexually licentiousness acts, and those do licentious acts; these spill blood and those spill blood. Why then do these descend to Gehinnom, and those do not descend to Gehinnom?

This is a very puzzing midrash. We find here the paradox of Yom Kippur, portrayed as a day of freely-given forgiveness. A clear contrast is drawn between Israel and other nations, both of which contain people who have violated central, cardinal ethical norms. Yet, this midrash implies, the former are forgiven, thanks to the mechanism of atonement affected by the ritual of Yom Kippur, even without inward turning or repentance (see my discussion of kaparah without teshuvah in HY I: Yom Kippur). But is this true? As I read the classic halakhic sources, even in Temple times, when there was the “atoning” or “scape goat,” Yom Kippur only atones without teshuvah for “minor transgressions.” Can this midrash be addressing another, more primitive, long forgotten understanding of Yom Kippur’s power of atonement as occurring automatically, as wholly trans-moral? In which even the gravest sins can be forgiven through the atoning grace of Yom Kippur? This point requires further reflection, and research.

“My adversaries and enemies against me.” The solar year contains three hundred sixty five days; the numerical value of the word “Satan” is 364; for all the days of the year the Satan complains, but on Yom Kippur he does not complain. Israel said before the Holy One blessed be He: “If a camp encamps against me” of Samael “my heart shall not fear.” For I have promised, “with these Aaron shall enter the holy place” [Lev 16:2].

Again, we have a metaphysical, almost mythical understanding of Yom Kippur, as a day when “the Adversary,” Satan or Samael, is silenced. The assumption here also seems to be that the process of Divine judgment and sentencing of the individual, and of Israel (and of all humankind?) on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is an adversarial contest between a kindly, forgiving God and a harsh, relentless, punitive prosecutor—who is silenced on Yom Kippur. And why? Because the gematria of his name is one short to extend to the 365th day! The cosmos itself is ruled by the letters of the sacred Hebrew tongue.


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