Personally I am always fascinated by the larger implications of tiny things. In this week’s Torah portion, Tetsavveh, a single letter in a seemingly straightforward verse leads us on a perhaps unexpected path.
The verse is Exodus 28:1. “You shall bring forward your brother Aaron, with his sons, from among the Israelites, to serve Me as priests: Aaron, Nadab and (v’) Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, the sons of Aaron” (JPS 1999 Hebrew-English Tanakh). Why does the verse not simply say Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar? And why are their names listed in the same way when the genealogy is also presented in Exodus 6:23 and Numbers 3:2? Clearly the first and, which is the English of the Hebrew prefix, the letter vav, is separating and grouping the two older brothers as different from the younger pair. Why is this so? The elder pair of brothers is mentioned three times in Torah and it is here that we must look for an answer.
The first mention is Exodus 6:23 where the sons of Aaron are named as part of an abbreviated genealogy of the tribe of Levi. This passage has two signposts for our quest. First it establishes that all four of Aaron’s sons had the same mother. This eliminates the possibility that the division between the pairs of brothers is based on matrilineal descent, a distinction often stated and alluded to in the case of the sons of Jacob. The second is that it establishes the family link between Aaronites on the one hand and the Korahites on the other. This is significant for our discussion as we look at how these family relations add an additional layer of meaning to events as they unfold.
The second occurrence is Exodus 24 where we are told that Aaron, Nadab and Abihu (but not Eleazar and Ithamar, nor Korah and his family) and seventy elders ascend part of the way up the mountain with Moses. Indeed in verse 9 we are told that they all saw the God of Israel and lived. The text makes clear that this was a special, almost unique, honour in that they were allowed to see God and live. Following this vision they eat and drink, apparently in celebration that they were not destroyed.
This critical incident establishes three sets of groupings within the family. The most obvious and explicit division is between the Aaronites and the Korahites. Korah and his followers see themselves as being diminished by the ascendancy of Moses and his family. We are told explicitly in Numbers 16:3 that they said, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” That the complaint is particularly against the Aaronites is made clear in verse 11 where Moses says to his fellow Levites, “For who is Aaron that you should rail against him?” The result is swift and in the end violent. Both parties are instructed to meet by the Tent of Meeting where they each light a fire pan and add incense, whereupon the Eternal threatens to destroy the “rebels”. But Moses and the Aaronites intercede and all but the core leaders of the objectors are destroyed and swallowed up by the earth (Num. 16:22–33).
But the ramifications of the elevation of Nadab and Abihu do not end there. For in a strong parallel to the fate of Korah they too are destroyed by the Eternal. We are told in Leviticus 10:1–3, “Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died-at the instance of the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the Lord meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people’ And Aaron was silent.”
If the result is clear, the reasons for the deaths of Nadab and Abihu are not. Korah and his followers are represented as resentful and arrogant outsiders seeking what they see as their due. But Nadab and Abihu are at the core of the leadership. Did their inclusion among those allowed to see God on the mountain feed an image of self-importance and arrogance? The reason given for their death is the strange or alien fire of their incense offering. Perhaps here lies their connection with Korah and the distinction from their brothers. For while some see in the description of strange fire the result of a strange electrical discharge or the poisonous vapours caused by non-standard ingredients in the incense itself, I would suggest that the fire referred to may have been the fire of extremism based on arrogance and self-importance.
Perhaps the message is that when we see ourselves as the centre of the universe, when we claim the right and wisdom to determine what the order of things must be and try to reshape reality in our own image of what it should be, then we become consumed by our own flames, or swallowed up and buried by the world.
But what of Eleazar and Ithamar? The impression I get is one of greater humility, though they end up in greater office. In Numbers 3:4 we are reminded the Nadab and Abihu were consumed by strange fire in the wilderness but that Eleazar and Ithamar served as priests during the lifetime of their father. It is not surprising that the verb used to indicate officiating as a priest has the same root as that for the noun “priest”, כהן (c-h-n). What many do not realise is that a meaning of the root is to prepare. Thus the real purpose of those who would lead the community is to serve, to remember that their role is simply to prepare, and to remember for Whom they are preparing.
Rabbi Larry Becker
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.