By Dr. Moshe
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#23: Crime and
20:5 is a brief
petichta which continues the theme of the injustice of the deaths of
Nadav and Avihu. The
petichta verse comes, once again, from the book of
R. Acha and R. Ze'ira opened their
discourse with the text:
“At this also my heart trembles, ve-yitar out of its place” (Job. 37:1).
What is the meaning of
as you read, “Wherewith to leap
(le-natter) upon the earth” (Lev. 11:21).
This is a good example of a case in
which peshat and derash coalesce. The midrash seeks to understand
the meaning of the obscure term ve-yitar at the end of the verse. It
cites another usage of the verb natar from Vayikra, in which the meaning
is clearly to leap. The procedure that the midrash follows here is no different
from that of the medieval pashtanim. Indeed, Rashi and Metzudat
Tzion both paraphrase this line of the midrash in their comments on this
verse. This interpretation is similarly adopted by modern translations and
Placed in the
context of the death of Aharon’s sons, this verse from Job suggests the shock
and horror of this tragic event. Once again, the midrash presents these deaths
as an inexplicable happening that deserves our sympathy, if not our outrage. The
midrash now contrasts the deaths of Nadav and Avihu with two other events, in
order to highlight the injustice of their deaths. The first event occurred only
a few years after their deaths:
Shall the sons of Aharon not be even
like his rod which entered dry and came out full of sap?
This refers to
the incident described in Bemidbar 17:16-24. After the quashing of
Korach’s rebellion, God instructs Aharon, along with the heads of the other
tribes, to place his staff in front of the Ark of the Covenant. The next day,
all of the other staffs remain as they were but Aharon’s staff has sprouted
flowers. This is a miraculous sign that Aharon and his sons had been chosen to
serve God in His sanctuary.
incident, presence before God in the Mishkan is a life-giving experience.
Aharon’s staff enters as a piece of dry, dead wood and is transformed into a
living branch which has sprouted flowers. Why, the midrash asks, should the sons
of Aharon suffer such a different fate than Aharon’s staff? They enter the
Mishkan very much alive and soon find themselves dead.
The Soncino translation, above, cites this statement in the name of
Elihu, the figure from the book of Job who speaks the petichta
verse. It is a little strange that
the midrash would place such a challenge to God’s justice in the mouth of Elihu,
who in the book of Job actually attempts to justify God’s ways. Other versions
attribute this accusation against God to Job. However, the vast majority of
manuscripts and editions attribute this statement to none other than the Holy
One, Blessed Be He! It is as if God is challenging Himself! This reading would
seem to be in line with the image we encountered last week of God grieving for
the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. It is as if the God who killed Nadav and Avihu
was somehow disconnected from the God who is devastated by their deaths. I do
not have a theological explanation of how this works. It is important to
remember that the rabbis of the midrash and aggada were not systematic
thinkers like Maimonides and other great medieval theologians. As we have noted
before, the rabbis were comfortable with contradictions and paradoxes,
especially when it comes to discussing God. Still, this passage is most
Now the midrash
turns to an event much later in Jewish history:
The wicked Titus entered the interior
of the Holy of Holies with his sword drawn in his hand.
He cut into the curtain and his sword
came out full of blood.
He entered in peace and departed in
peace, yet the sons of Aharon came in to offer incense and came out burnt,
as is borne out by the text,
AFTER THE DEATH OF THE TWO SONS OF
WHEN THEY DREW NEAR BEFORE THE LORD,
In the year 70 CE, the Roman general
(and later emperor) Titus led his forces into Jerusalem, destroying the city and the Temple. This famous
aggada tells of how he entered the Temple and despoiled it. Despite his
blasphemous activities, Titus emerged from the sanctuary unharmed. The midrash
here implicitly challenges the justice of God’s action (or inaction) in both the
case of the sons of Aharon and that of Titus. The sons of Aharon enter the
sanctuary intending to make a sacrifice and they are killed. Note that the
midrash makes no reference to the fact that the Torah says that sons brought an
esh zara, “a foreign fire,” and that there was apparently something
inappropriate about their sacrifice. Rather, the sons are portrayed as blameless
innocents whose death at the hands of God is inexplicable, no less than Titus’s
ability to act with impunity is similarly inexplicable. (It should be noted that
there is a well-known aggada which describes how God did in fact punish
Titus with a cruel and unusual death after he returned to Rome.)
Finally we come
to the last petichta in this parasha:
R. Berechya opened his discourse with
the text: “To punish the innocent is surely not right” (Proverbs
Said the Holy One, Blessed Be He, even
though I punished Aharon and took from him his two sons, “not right,” rather
“Or to flog the great for their
Thus it is written, “After the death
of Aharon’s two sons.”
This petichta is as cryptic as
it is short. It consists of little more than the citation of the petichta
verse, with a brief gloss connecting this verse to the death of Aharon’s sons.
In the translation of these lines (this passage is missing from the Soncino
translation as I have it), I have used the JPS translation of the Proverbs
verse, in which the verse condemns the baseless punishment of the righteous.
Clearly, however, the midrash understood this verse differently. Here is my tentative understanding of
midrash reads the words “lo tov” (“not right”) rhetorically - “is it not
right?” Second, the second half of the verse lehakot nedivim al yosher –
which JPS translates as, “Or to flog the great for their uprightness” is also
read differently. The term nedivim is understood as “princes,” a
reference to Nadav and Avihu, the two princes of the priestly line. Al
yosher is understood not as “for their uprightness,” but rather “with just
cause." The key section of the petichta might thus be paraphrased as
God said, Even
though I punished Aharon by taking his sons,
was this wrong?
Rather, I smote
the princes for just causes.
In other words, while it is true that
Aharon was blameless, and did not deserve to suffer the loss of two of his sons,
God’s actions were nevertheless justified. Nadav and Avihu had sinned and
deserved their punishment.
Until this point
in the parasha, the midrash has consistently portrayed the sons of Aharon
as blameless and their deaths as a paradigmatic example of the suffering of the
righteous in this world. Now, for the first time in the parasha, the
midrash seeks to justify God’s actions. The sons of Aharon deserved to die as a
result of their deeds. In the remainder of the parasha, the midrash will
expand on this theme, investigating the exact nature of the brothers’
As I mentioned
previously, this is the last petichta in this parasha. We now
begin what is known as the gufa, or the “body” of the parasha,
which goes on to interpret the passage at hand without the constraints of the
The sons of Aharon only died because
they issued halakhic rulings in the presence of their teacher
R. Eliezer specifies the sin for which
Nadav and Avihu were punished. They had the audacity to rule on halakhic issues
when Moses himself was available to give judgment. This interpretation is most
striking because it does not seem to have any basis in the text of the Torah.
Rather, R. Eliezer appears to be motivated by his desire to address a
contemporary concern. In the Torah, and in most of the midrashim, Nadav and
Avihu appear as priests, whose main business is working in the Sanctuary. Hence,
their sin is generally perceived as relating to their behavior while engaging in
the divine service. In contrast, R. Eliezer transforms Nadav and Avihu into
rabbinic scholars, not unlike R. Eliezer, his colleagues and their disciples.
Their sin is portrayed as related to their status and activities as rabbis and
halakhic experts rather than as priests.
The story of Nadav and Avihu thus becomes particularly relevant to R.
Eliezer and his world. The prohibition against ruling in the presence of one’s
teacher is aimed at the younger generation of scholars. It is meant to protect
the hierarchy in which elders maintain their authority over their students even
after the students have gone out on their own. Nadav and Avihu become paradigms of
insubordination among the young generation of rabbis.
In line with my
theory that in this case the rabbis were more interested in addressing a
contemporary issue than with interpreting the Biblical text, the midrash
continues by discussing the applications and implications of the prohibition
against ruling in the presence of one’ s master in their own
It happened that a student once ruled
in the presence of his master, R. Eliezer.
[R. Eliezer] said to his wife Ima
Shalom: Woe to the wife of this man,he
will not live out the week.
Before the week was out, he
The sages came to him and said: Are
you a prophet?
He said to them: “I am neither a
prophet nor the son of a prophet” (Amos 7:14)
Rather, thus have I received [from my
teachers]. Whoever rules in halakha
before his master, is liable to die.
In this story,
R. Eliezer applies the prohibition against ruling in front of one’s teacher to a
contemporary situation rather than to a biblical narrative. One of R. Eliezer’s
own students once ruled in front of him. R. Eliezer remarked to his wife that
this man would die within the week. Indeed, the man died within the week. At
this point, the basis of R. Eliezer’s prediction is not clear. This is
especially so if we read this story in isolation from its context. In that case,
we do not even know that there is such a prohibition against ruling in front of
one’s teacher. It would seem that R. Eliezer has some supernatural ability to
predict the future. Perhaps he is even responsible for the student’s death. His
statement could be understood not as a prediction but as a curse.
In order to
resolve this ambiguity, the rabbis come and ask R. Eliezer directly. On the
surface, R. Eliezer’s response clarifies the basis of his knowledge. He has
received a tradition from his own teachers that one who rules in front of his
master is liable to die. R. Eliezer insists that he has no privileged knowledge
or abilities beyond his mastery of the halakhic tradition. However, R. Eliezer’s
answer is hardly complete. Just because a person deserves death does not
necessarily mean that he will die, and certainly not within the week. We are
left with the impression that R. Eliezer does, in fact, have some special
abilities which, along with his knowledge of the halakha, allow him to predict,
or perhaps even cause, a person’s death. We should note that in the famous story
of tanur shel Achanai, in the Bavli, Bava Metzi’a (59a-60a),
precisely such destructive powers are attributed to R. Eliezer.
A note on the
role of women in this story: In the text as it appears in the printed editions,
there are references to two women – R. Eliezer’s wife and the student’s wife.
Though they take no active part in the story, I would argue that they open up a
certain feminine space within it. The overall story is one of male
relationships, between the student and R. Eliezer and between R. Eliezer and the
other rabbis. It is a story of crime and harsh punishment, whose events are
dissected dispassionately by the rabbis. It is only in the lines referring to
women that these events are presented as a human tragedy. It is a woman who
suffers and a woman who is apparently meant to empathize with her sister’s
situation. The women’s presence
thus creates a certain moral balance in the story, by revealing the human plight
created by divine justice.
Next, the midrash
turns to explicating the halakhic details of this prohibition. How far away can
a student be and still be considered “in the presence” of one’s master? The
R. Eleazar learned: It is forbidden
for a disciple to give a legal decision in the presence of his master until he
is twelve mils away from him, this being the extent of the camp of
as may be inferred from the text, “And
they pitched by the Jordan, from Beth-Yeshimot even unto
Avel-Shittim” (Num. 33:49).
How far apart were these places?
The midrash cites R. Eleazar’s
teaching on this matter. R. Eleazar
specifies that one is considered in one’s teacher’s “presence” so long as he is
within 12 “mil” of him. (A “mil” is equal to 2000 cubits or about a kilometer.)
From whence does R. Eleazar get this measurement? He explains that this was the
size of the encampment of Israel when they wandered in the
wilderness. He derives this measurement from the verse in Bemidbar which
states the geographic parameters of the encampment.
The midrash now
tells yet another story about a student who ruled in the presence of his
R. Tanchum son of R. Yirmiya was at
They consulted him on various points
and he gave his decisions.
Said they to him: 'Did we not learn in
the beit midrash as follows:
It is forbidden for a disciple to give
a legal decision in the presence of his master within a distance of twelve
And R. Mani your master dwells at
Sepphoris, does he not?’
He said to them: 'May [evil] come upon
me if I knew it! '
From that moment he gave no further
This story needs to be read as both a
halakhic and an aggadic text. From a halakhic perspective, the story adds
important information. Until this point, of the two individuals who are reported
as saying that it is prohibited to rule in the presence of one’s master, the
first is R. Eliezer. R. Eliezer did not represent the rabbinic mainstream of his
day. Indeed, he was excommunicated and his rulings were rejected. In this story, however, this same ruling
is cited not in the name of an individual, marginalized rabbi, but in the name
of the “beit midrash” in general. In many manuscripts, this ruling is
attributed to none other than R. Yehuda Ha-nassi, the editor of the mishna and
the greatest rabbi of his time. This would appear to be a normative ruling as
reflected by the fact that R. Tanchum unhesitatingly accepts the ruling. This
story thus clarifies that despite the fact that this ruling originates with R.
Eliezer, it is, in fact, binding.
From an aggadic
perspective, this story teaches a moral lesson through its literary form. This
story is fundamentally ironic. In the opening scene we find R. Tanchum answering
halakhic questions from the people gathered around. It seems that he is the wise
one who dispenses his knowledge to his relatively ignorant disciples. But then,
suddenly, the tables turn. It turns out that the people are aware of one
important ruling that R. Tanchum is not. Now R. Tanchum is the student and they
are the teachers. Moreover, the ruling they transmit undermines all of R.
Tanchum’s rulings, since it now turns out that he had no jurisdiction to make
them. However, the story does not end here. R. Tanchum admits his ignorance and
commits to abide by the ruling. In the end, R. Tanchum is wise because he is
willing to learn from anyone, even his own students. This willingness to admit
mistakes and to make changes in his behavior is R. Tanchum’s real wisdom and it
more than makes up for any lacunae in his scholarship.