וידבר אהרן אל משה: הן היום הקריבו את חטאתם ואת עלתם לפני ה’, ותקראנה אותי כאלה; ואכלתי חטאת היום, הייטב בעיני ה’? וישמע משה וייטב בעיניו.
(ויקרא י’, י”ט-כ’)
The inauguration ceremonies of the mishkan (the tabernacle) reach their climax on the eighth day, when Aharon and his four sons enter to perform the ritual services prescribed by God. Tragedy hits when two sons, Nadav and Avihu, meet their deaths inside the tabernacle.
A few years ago, I wrote about Aharon’s reaction to the words of consolation from his brother Moshe: total silence. This silence, expressed in the irregular use of the word vayidom (coming from the word domem, denoting an inanimate object), expresses Aharon’s discipline and his total submission to the will of God. Even in the face of the unfathomable grief of losing two sons in one day, Aharon managed to find inner peace and remain silent, to continue performing his public duties in the mishkan.
In light of this stoic behaviour on the part of Aharon, it is very puzzling to read what happens later on that day. Moshe finds out that, against his explicit orders, Aharon and his two remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, have burnt the goat of the sin-offering instead of eating its meat (unlike a burnt-offering, olah, which is entirely burnt, parts of the sin-offering, chatat,is eaten). He scolds Aharon’s sons for this transgression, and Aharon this time is far from silent:
And Aharon spoke unto Moses: ‘Behold, this day have they offered their sin-offering and their burnt-offering before God, and there have befallen me such things as these; and if I had eaten the sin-offering today, would it have been well-pleasing in the sight of God? And when Moshe heard that, it was well-pleasing in his sight.
(VaYikra 10, 19-20)
Why does Aharon talk back to Moshe now, when only moments ago he was silent?
Following the footsteps of the Midrash, some of the commentators prefer to solve this question using a halachic explanation. Moshe was mistaken and Aharon corrected his mistake. A priest (cohen) who has not buried his dead relative yet (a status called onen), is exempt from some of his ritual obligations, so Aharon and his sons were exempt from eating the sin-offering. Moshe forgot this law and this is why it was “well-pleasing in his sight” when Aharon corrected his mistake.
But this explanation is not satisfactory. Reading the verses, and specifically Aharon’s reply, one can hardly categorise this as a halachic dispute. Aharon mentions the tragedy that has befallen him as the reason for him not eating the sin-offering, as such eating would not be pleasing in the eyes of God. There must be something in the eating of the sacrifice that does not fit with the situation Aharon was in. Something which prompted Aharon to talk back this time.
Samuele David Luzzatto (Shadal), the 19th century Italian Biblical commentator, provides the following explanation. Aharon says to Moshe: “My four sons and I performed our duties in the Mishkan and yet two of my sons died. This shows that God is angry at us and has not accepted our atonement offerings. The sin-offering (chatat) is supposed to atone for the sins of the entire Jewish people. How can we atone for the people of Israel when God has rejected our own atonement offerings?” In other words, Aharon felt he was unworthy of taking part in the atonement offering for Israel when his atonement was rejected by God. As the Talmud says in Berachot: if a person sees that sufferings are befalling him, he should check his ways.
Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam), the 12th century grandson of Rashi and himself a great Biblical commentator, offers a different view. The eating of the meat of sacrifices is considered a happy thing (simcha, happiness, is the word used to denote a certain type of offering). Aharon cannot express any happiness on this day, after the death of two of his sons.
It seems this last explanation provides the answer to our question. When Moshe tells Aharon to accept God’s punishment and continue performing his duties in the Mishkan, unacceptable as this request may be, Aharon agrees and remains silent. But when Moshe scolds his sons for not eating the meat of the sin-offering, Aharon talks back and tells his brother that it is not possible to express any form of happiness right now. When a person is grieving but has to continue his public work, it is one thing to ask him to suspend his grief for the time being. It is quite another to ask him to express joy. Aharon felt that partaking in the eating of the meat would be entirely inappropriate, even in the eyes of God.
A careful reading of Aharon’s reply reveals another dimension to this human situation. Aharon says “they have offered” when talking about his four sons’ actions earlier that day, but “have befallen me” when talking about the tragedy. The grief he expresses is entirely personal, even though Elazar and Itamar are also grieving. He cries out for compassion and mercy, a personal plea that begs for understanding. Moshe’s reaction proves that he understood his brother’s pain and accepted it.