Double Death? by Aaron Haber


Parashat Acharei Mot begins following the deaths of Aharon's two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu. There is an apparent redundancy in the Parashah's opening pasuk, "VaYedabeir Hashem El Moshe Acharei Mot Shenei Bnei Aharon BeKorvatam Lifnei Hashem VaYamutu,” “Hashem spoke to Moshe after the death of Aaron's two sons, when they went before Hashem, and they died" (VaYikra 16:1). Why is the death of Aaron's sons referred to twice in such succession?

The Shemen HaTov answers based on a Gemara (Mo’eid Katan 24a). It states that when Rabi Yochanan was told that Rabi Chanina had died, he tore Keri’ah on thirteen expensive wool garments and commented, "The man I was afraid of has departed." The Gemara asks why Rabi Yochanan tore Keri’ah upon hearing the news so long after the incident. Normally one rips  clothing only at “the moment of heat,” when the tragedy is fresh. The Gemara answers that Rabbis are different because whenever their teachings are quoted, no matter how much time has passed since their death, it is considered a fresh tragedy. This would apply to the two sons of Aharon as well, who were “near to God, and through them He was sanctified” (VaYikra 10:3).They were great men of Israel and great men of the world. With such people it is not simply a matter of accepting the deaths and moving on. The lack of their presence is felt constantly as demonstrated by the extra word “VaYamutu.”

This answer, however, seems to be flawed. Nadav and Avihu were punished for bringing an “Eish Zarah,” “a strange fire,” (VaYikra 10:1) before Hashem. Why is it so important to mention that their death is remembered again and again? If they were punished, their absence shouldn’t have such an impact.

An answer can be found in Pirkei Avot (3:18). The Mishnah states Rabi Akiva was known to say how loved man is, that not only was he made in God’s image, but he knows it, from the Pasuk “Ki BeTzelem Elokim Asah Et HaAdam,” “For in the image of God has He made man” (BeReishit 9:6). He would also exclaim how loved Bnei Yisrael are that they are Hashem’s children and are told so in the Pasuk “Banim Atem LaHashem Elokeichem,” “You are children to Hashem, your God” (Devarim 14:1). Rabi Akiva chooses to impress upon us the former fact with a Pasuk that appears in chapter 9 of BeReishit, rather than first and single most explicit reference in the Torah to this fact: “VaYivra Elokim Et HaAdam BeTzalmo BeTzelem Elokim Bara Oto,” “And God created Man in His image, in the image of God He created Him” (BeReishit 1:27). Likewise, in supporting the idea that Hashem treats Israel as his children, Rabi Akiva cites the middle of Seifer Devarim to find a Pasuk. Once again, the idea appears much earlier in the Torah, where it states “Beni Bechori Yisrael,” "My son, My first born, (Bnei) Yisrael" (Shemot 4:22).

Rav Soloveitchik offers an amazing insight into this question. He explains that Rabi Akiva is trying to impress upon Israel that their special relationship with Hashem binds them to a code of behavior. The “Chibah Yeteirah” (greater love) that Hashem shows man over the rest of the creatures of the universe, as well as the Chibah Yeteirah that Hashem shows Am Yisrael over the rest of the nations, is not gratuitous; it comes with responsibilities. Rabi Akiva passes over the initial mention that man was created in God's image and instead chooses the Pasuk that links man's Divine image with the prohibition of murder. The full Pasuk states, "Whoever sheds the blood of man among men, his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man" (BeReishit 9:6). Similarly, the initial Pasuk alluding to the father-child relationship between Hashem and Israel suggested a gratuitous gift and appears in a statement directed to Pharaoh. The Pasuk in Devarim creates a more responsibility oriented connection: "You are children to Hashem, therefore you shall not cut yourselves and you shall not make a bald spot between your eyes for the dead" (Devarim 14:1). These Pesukim demonstrate that Chibah Yeteirah stems from the fact that the Jewish people are different and therefore must act accordingly. Rabi Akiva chooses to cite these specific locations because here Hashem makes known his special love and the responsibilities that go with it.

Nadav and Avihu are famous examples of having the right intentions but the wrong actions. They misunderstood their obligations and failed to maintain their responsibilities, and for this reason their deaths are mentioned a second time. “VaYamutu” is not in reference to the time of the Pasuk; that is the purpose of “Acharei Mot.” Rather, “VaYamutu” is stated for future generations. As the Jewish people, we must make a constant effort to remember the deaths of Nadav and Avihu and to always be aware of both our responsibilities and obligations towards Hashem, and the Chibah Yeteirah that makes up our relationship.

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