After nine chapters mostly concerned with sacrificial procedures, Perek Yud of VaYikra is rewardingly dramatic. The Perek begins with the tragic deaths of Aharon’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, for their sin of offering an “Eish Zarah,” “Foreign fire” (VaYikra 10:1).
The death of Aharon’s sons coincides with the eighth day of his household’s inauguration as Kohanim. Thus, there exists within Aharon, his remaining sons Elazar and Itamar, and the entire Jewish people a turbulent blend of grief and bereavement as well as joy and celebration.
In this charged environment, Moshe and Aharon struggle to negotiate the countervailing influences and emotions. Moshe tells Aharon and his children to remain in the Mishkan and to shun any outward displays of mourning, while Bnei Yisrael are permitted to grieve; the show must go on, and the Kohanim must consume their portion of the Minchah, the Shelamim, and the Chatat.
But the final Korban of that list is missing. The Pasuk tells us, “Ve’Eit Se’ir HaChatat Darosh Darash Moshe VeHinei Soraf,” “And the sin-offering goat, Moshe sought out, and behold it had been burned” (ibid. 10:16); Moshe’s reaction to this bulletin, ostensibly caused by frayed nerves, is, “VaYiktzof Moshe Al Elazar Ve’Al Itamar,” “And Moshe became angry at Elazar and Itamar” (ibid.).
Aharon (who in the Peshat, it requires emphasis, is not the object of Moshe Rabbeinu’s ire) defends his children with the enigmatic line, “Hein HaYom Hikrivu Et Chatatam Ve’Et Olatam Lifnei Hashem VaTikrenah Oti Ka’Eileh Ve’Achalti Chatat HaYom HaYitav Be’Einei Hashem,” “Surely today they brought their sin-offering and elevation-offering before God, and these happened to me; and should I eat a sin-offering today? Would it be good in the eyes of God?” (VaYikra 10:19). Aharon seems to be presenting himself as an Onein, one whose close relative has passed away and has not yet been buried, and who cannot perform Mitzvot Asei.
The Gemara (Zevachim 101a) provides a Scriptural source for the concept of Aninut: one who audits their Ma’aser payments every third year declares, “Lo Achalti Ve’Oni Mimenu,” “I did not eat from it in my bereavement (Aninut).” If such a measure is enforced in the relatively lenient area of Ma’aser, reasons the Gemara, surely it should apply to the relatively strict area of Korbanot. Thus, the action performed by Aharon and his sons in burning the Chatat was justified.
Indeed, Rabi Nechemiah states (Sifra Shemini 2:8) that Aharon’s halachic reasoning was that his status as an Onein should preclude him from partaking in the Chatat. But Rabi Yehudah and Rabi Shimon forcefully attack Rabi Nechamiah’s position on three points (ibid. 2:10): If an Onein cannot eat the meat of a Korban, why weren’t the Minchah and the Olah also burned? If Aninut (the status of being an Onein) was what prevented the Kohanim from eating part of the Korban, why did they not wait until nightfall, when Aninut would finish, and then eat from the Chatat? And why not give the meat to Pinchas, the son of Elazar and halachically not an Onein, instead of burning it? Rabi Shimon and Rabi Yehudah thus conclude that the meat of the Korban Chatat had somehow become impure, and therefore it was burned. While Rabi Nechemiah’s position may be halachically difficult (although the Gemara struggles to answer the attacks of Rabi Yehudah and Rabi Shimon), the answer of Rabi Yehudah and Rabi Shimon faces an uphill struggle in the arena of interpretation of the Pasuk, as Tumah is not mentioned once explicitly in regard to the Chatat.
I would like to suggest a third approach. If only this specific sacrifice is burned, while the rest are eaten by Aharon and his sons, then it stands to reason that the problem is intrinsic to the Korban. Indeed, Aharon’s protest specifically mentions, “Ve’Achalti Chatat HaYom,” “And shall I eat a sin-offering today?” (VaYikra 10:19).
Complicating matters, there are two Korbenot Chatat that Aharon brought: an Eigel Ben Bakar for personal atonement, and the Se’ir of the people. Only the latter was burned. It would follow logically that the reason the Se’ir HaChatat was burned can be found in a quality it possessed that the Eigel lacked— namely, that it was brought on behalf of the people.
There is a general halacha that a Korban Chatat must be accompanied by sincere, heartfelt Teshuvah; an offering on its own cannot achieve atonement. Furthermore, to profess repentance while continuing to sin is oxymoronic; as Rambam writes, it is akin to a person being “Toveil VeSheretz BeYado,” “Immersing in a Mikvah while holding an unclean creature” (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:3).
Bnei Yisrael were required to bring a Chatat, ostensibly to atone for their previous, grievous sin, that of the Cheit Ha’Eigel. But while Bnei Yisrael were in the process of atoning for this act of Avodah Zarah, Nadav and Avihu entered the Kodesh HaKodashim with an “Eish Zarah,” “Foreign fire” (VaYikra 10:1), flagrantly violating the boundaries G-d had set and engaging in a possible act of Avodah Zarah (in the technical, ‘strange worship’ [of G-d] sense of the term). If Nadav and Avihu, the children of the Kohein Gadol and his heirs apparent, were worshiping G-d in an unacceptable manner, then surely the people of Bnei Yisrael had not completed their repentance; “KeMitat HaBe’alim Kach Mitat HaShor,” “As the masters die, so too the ox dies” (Sanhedrin 15a). This theory of the case is buttressed by the reason Hashem gives for prohibiting non-Korban meat in the Midbar: “VeLo Yizbechu Od Et Zivcheihem LaSe’irim Asher Heim Zonim Achareihem,” “And they will no longer offer their sacrifices to the goat-demons after whom they stray” (VaYikra 17:7), implying that Bnei Yisrael continued to sacrifice to entities other than G-d. As such, Aharon’s contention that a Chatat for improper worship was inappropriate on that day, and thus should be burned, was well founded.
This explanation also provides a compelling reason for the juxtaposition of Kashrut to the story of Nadav and Avihu: the only way Bnei Yisrael could rectify their behavior was to recognize boundaries and to follow divine-mandated distinctions, “Lehavdil Bein HaTamei UVein HaTahor,” “To differentiate between the impure and the pure” (VaYikra 11:47). The mandate to distinguish between good and evil, central to the human mission in general and the Jewish mission in particular, remains at the root of our duties. May we all discharge it with faith, honor, pride, and dignity, and may we merit to experience once again: “VaYeira Kevod HaShem El Kol Ha’Am,” “And the glory of God appeared to the entire nation” (VaYikra 9:23), speedily and in our days.