Prescient Mourning by Alexander Kalb


In this week’s Parashah, the Torah states, “UPetach Ohel Mo’eid Teishvu Yomam VaLaylah Shiv’at Yamim UShemartem Et Mishmeret Hashem,” “At the entrance of the Tent of Meeting shall you dwell day and night for seven days, and you shall keep the watch of Hashem” (VaYikra 8:35). Moshe Rabbeinu commands Bnei Aharon to remain at the entrance of the Mishkan throughout the seven days of the inauguration period. Ramban explains that this Mitzvah is directed not only at Bnei Aharon of that time, but to all generations of Kohanim who would serve in the Beit HaMikdash. A Kohein is never allowed to abandon the Mishkan or Beit HaMikdash in the middle of his service. To the Bnei Aharon at the time of the inauguration, this refers to their service during those seven days; to future generations, this refers to any of the services in the Beit HaMikdash.

However, the Pardeis Yosef points out that the Ramban cannot be referring to the service that Bnei Aharon performed, because during the seven inauguration days, Moshe served only in the Mishkan; the Kohanim did not begin their service until the eighth day. The Pardeis Yosef explains that Bnei Aharon’s Mitzvah was not to participate in the service, but rather, to watch carefully as it was being performed by Moshe. In this way, they learned how to perform the service properly for the time when they would perform these tasks. Since their role at that time was to learn the service from Moshe Rabbeinu, it was forbidden for them to leave both “Yomam VaLaylah,” “during the day and at night” (ibid.). The daytime service is described here in detail, while the nighttime service consists of watching that which was burning on the Mizbei’ach from the daytime Korban. When the services completed, they were free to leave until the next service begins.

Rabbeinu Bachya, citing the Midrash Tanchuma, offers another reason for these special instructions to Bnei Aharon. As we will see in next week’s Parashah, Nadav and Avidu, two of Aharon’s four sons, die on the eighth day of the inauguration. At that time, Aharon’s two remaining sons, El’azar and Itamar, were forbidden from expressing signs of mourning, so as not to detract from the celebration of the inauguration of the Mishkan. Hashem, who obviously knows future events, decided that instead of mourning after the deaths of their brothers, El’azar and Itamar would remain the Mishkan for seven days and unknowingly mourn their brothers’ untimely passing. The Midrash explains that normally, a person cannot mourn for the dead before they have died, because he does not know the time at which death will occur. However, Hashem, Who knows when every death will occur, can arrange for someone to mourn even before the death. Similarly, Hashem waited an extra seven days before bringing the Mabul as a mourning period for the world which was to be destroyed.

Kohelet (9:12) states, “Ki Gam Lo Yeida HaAdam Et Ito,” “For a man does not even know his hour.” This Pasuk is a reminder that a man never knows when his time will come, for death or downfall can come suddenly at any time.

Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, based on the Midrash, adds a powerful insight to these words: The Midrash relates that the seven days during which the four sons of Aharon stayed at the entrance of the Mishkan, in preparation for the inauguration of the Mishkan, were in reality days of mourning that Hashem commanded them to keep for the coming death of Nadav and Avihu. The Midrash concludes that they were keeping watch, but they did not know the true purpose of their watch.

Take a moment to consider the following parallel: four people are chosen from the entire nation to serve as Kohanim for the House of Hashem. They are dressed in the Bigdei Kehunah and positioned in a place of honor at the entrance to the Mishkan for seven days to inaugurate their new, privileged, position. At the end of the seven days, it becomes clear that the entire time they were actually mourning. Elazar and Itamar were mourning the loss of their brothers, while Nadav and Avihu were mourning their own deaths! Rav Sorotzkin comments that not only does a man not know when tragedy may befall him in the future, but a man does not even know his hour. Even as he is sitting at the peak of success, he may actually, at that very time, be in a terrible.

The Chafetz Chayim used to advise people not to rely on their children to bring merit to their souls by saying Kaddish and learning Mishnayot when they are gone, for a person never knows what tomorrow will bring. Instead, one should learn for his own soul while he is alive, and strive to sanctify Hashem during his own life. This will be a true merit for his soul when his time comes.

This is a practical lesson that we can learn from the Midrash. Nadav and Avihu did not leave any children to pray for their souls. However, they were fortunate enough to be granted time to memorialize their own souls by living an elevated life for seven days and nights before their death, near the presence of Hashem. A person does not know when he will be called to his fate; therefore, one should always behave in the way of Nadav and Avihu: stand fast in keeping the watch of Hashem. We should keep a constant connection with the House of Hashem, as the Mishnah (Avot 2:10) states “VeShuv Yom Echad Lifnei Mitatcha,” “Repent one day before your death.” In doing so, we can ensure our maintained connection with Hashem.

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