The death of the two sons of Aaron remain one of the great mysteries that the Torah presents to us. The Talmud and Midrash have advanced several ideas as to why such a tragedy occurred and it may seem to a certain extent it was self-inflicted. The reasons for their failures are listed – they had drunk too much wine, they never intended to marry and father a family and they wanted their elders to pass on so that they could be the leaders of the people. Over the centuries other ideas of their failings have been enumerated by the commentators.
In the face of all of this we have the record of the Torah itself that their father Aaron was silent. The silence many times is the only acceptable answer in the face of tragedy. The silence indicates the line between the judgment of heaven and the understanding of life that humans bring to it. My thoughts are not your thoughts and my ways are not your ways, that is what the Lord says, and man must adjust to that difficult reality.
So, Aaron is silent. He does not complain, and he does not cast blame. Is he aware of the behavior of his sons? The Torah does not comment upon that either. Many times, parents really do not comprehend their children nor are they privy to their ambitions or thoughts. But the Torah leaves all of this as an open question as far as Aaron and his sons are concerned. We have no idea as to what he thought of his sons, but we can understand the anguish and pain that he must have suffered on that terrible day of tragedy. Aaron remains a symbol therefore of the ability to continue life even when life has struck a deadly blow to the person. In this respect I always felt that he is a prototype of Iyov who also seems to suffer for causes that are unknown and inexplicable. However, Iyov complains loudly and demands to know why. Aaron is silent and does not raise his voice either in anger or in doubt.
I can only imagine that the surviving sons of Aaron, Elazar and Itamar, are placed under enormous personal and emotional pressure. The older sons, Nadav and Avihu, were seen as the heads of the family and as the ones who bore responsibility for preserving the line of the priesthood and the holiness of the Tabernacle and Temple. Now they have suddenly been removed from the scene. Elazar and Itamar are the only ones left. Many times in human history we have seen that younger brothers who never expected to become a monarch or have a position of importance and influence, when fate decreed otherwise and made that younger person the head of the family or the leader of the country, rose to the occasion.
It is not that they imitated their older siblings who no longer were present, but rather it was that they were able to assert their own personality and their own inner greatness. One never knows the capabilities and potential that one has until and unless one is challenged by fate and life itself. Potential exists within everyone. The ability to bring forth that potential and to further it and strengthen it and make it beneficial, that is a challenge.
So, included in the tragedy of the deaths of the two older sons of Aaron is the response of the two younger sons who apparently rise to the occasion. Elazar will be the high priest that leads the Jewish people to the land of Israel and Itamar will be the one that is able to organize and correctly finance the building of the tabernacle in the desert and other projects as well. The line of the priesthood of Israel that exists until today runs through Elazar and Itamar who never expected to be the ones that would have to bear that burden and meet that challenge. That is also part of the idea of Aaron’s silence. For who knows how people will respond and who knows what potential will be released that will help build the Jewish people and humankind.
Rabbi Berel Wein