This week’s double Parashah begins with a famously odd opening Pasuk. Many Mefarshim try to solve the mystery of the strange context given in the first Pasuk-- a context that seems only to add salt to Aharon’s wounds. His sons had just died, and the first Pasuk of the Parashah does a good job reminding us of the tragedy, when it states: “VaYidaber Hashem El Moshe Acharei Mot Shenei Benei Aharon Bekorvatam Lifnei Hashem VaYamutu”, “And Hashem spoke to Moshe after the death of Aharon’s two sons when they drew near to Hashem” (VaYikra 16:1).
In order to solve the troubling and discomforting context of the Pasuk, Rashi (Ibid s.v. VaYidaber) cites an answer from the Sifri. He explains that the purpose for bringing up the death of Aharon’s sons is that of an extra aspect of warning. He puts forth the following image: imagine one doctor told you not to eat cold food and to stay away from cold and moist environments. Such a warning might be successful, but it would not nearly be as successful as a second doctor, who gives the same advice, along with an example. The second doctor might mention a patient who had similar symptoms but still ate cold food against the doctor’s orders, thereby resulting in something terrible. The real example justifies and supports the advice, which in turn makes it easier to follow. So too here, Rashi explains, Hashem was about to give the warning to Aharon in the very next Pasuk that he should not enter the Kodesh HaKedashim at any time lest he die. To strengthen His message, Hashem puts this command in the context of the death of Aharon’s sons-- a preceding example.
While he accepts the approach of Rashi and the Sifri, the Ramban offers another interpretation. The Ramban is of the approach that the principle of Ein Mukdam UMe’uchar BaTorah is very limited in scope. He believes that almost everything in the Torah happened in the exact order it was written down unless specified otherwise. The Ramban explains that this Pasuk is one of those specified Pesukim. When Hashem commanded Moshe to tell Aharon not to go into the Kodesh HaKedashim at any time, that command was given immediately after the deaths of Aharon’s sons, back in Parashat Shemini.
While there are many different approaches given by various Rishonim and Acharonim as to why this specific context is given, a question that is dealt with less often is why are Nadav and Avihu referred to as “Shenei Bnei Aharon?” One approach I would like to suggest has to do with the Sheim, or name of a person.
In Kohelet, Shlomo HaMelech (the author) deals extensively with the concept of a person’s name, drawing an analogy between a man’s name and oil. He also presents a second comparison within the same Pasuk. In addition to a Sheim Tov being better than good oil, so too “Yom HaMavet MiYom Hivaledo”, “the day of death more so than the day of birth” (Kohelet 7:1). Rashi (ibid s.v. Tov Sheim), in addition to a few other Mefarshim, explains that the reason for this is that throughout a person’s life he develops his name through good deeds and acts of kindness. As such, a person’s name should be greater by the day of his death than the day he was born. A man’s name is indicative of all the good or bad things that a person might stand for.
In the introductory Pasuk of Acharei Mot, the names of Nadav and Avihu are missing. Perhaps this can be used to further support the approach of Rashi in Kohelet. Had Hashem warned Aharon by using anyone else as an example, it would not have been nearly as effective as when Hashem used his sons. It is for that reason that they are simply referred to as the sons of Aharon. Had the Torah called them by their names, it would have seemed like Hashem was using them as the examples to show that if such a tragedy could happen to such great people who did great things, then it could happen to Aharon as well. But it is not in the nature of a father to simply find meaning from his son’s life simply based on merit. Aharon loved his sons simply because they were his sons. Had Hashem used their names, referencing their merits and deeds, it might have even detracted from the meaning behind Hashem’s warning.
It is a shame that not too much is known about the Sheim of either Nadav or Avihu, as the most famous things about them were their deaths and their relation to Aharon. Little is known about either their merits or sins (although there is a Midrash that they told Lashon Hara against Moshe and Aharon, anticipating their deaths so that they might lead the people). Perhaps that is for the better in this context. If, as Rashi says, their deaths were brought up once again specifically to warn Aharon, then bringing up any past merits or sins written in their books would have only been counterproductive, for then Aharon, or anyone else for that matter, could say that they died for other sins, or that they died because Hashem had higher expectations of them. By simply calling them the “Bnei Aharon” and not calling down upon any of their past deeds, Hashem makes sure that others won’t judge themselves against their actions, and thereby create false impressions of their own spiritual standings.