Acharei Mot opens with a description of the dramatic and mysterious avodat yom hakippurim, the intricate ritual performed by the High Priest on Yom Kippur that the Torah affirms will annually bring forgiveness to the Jewish people.
Somewhat unusually though, the Torah provides us with a historical context of when exactly this mitzvah was transmitted through Moshe to Aaron — “after the death of Aaron’s two sons,” Nadav and Avihu.
The Ramban assumes that this is a literal description, and that this mitzvah was communicated the day after their passing. The Chizkuni asserts that it took place on the day of their death itself. This only strengthens our need to understand the thematic connection between the death of Aaron’s sons and the Yom Kippur ritual.
Rashi suggests that the death of Aaron’s sons, who met their demise in the course of offering what the Torah enigmatically refers to as “foreign fire” in the sanctuary, is invoked by way of impressing on Aaron the necessity of adhering precisely to the prescribed ritual when entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. According to this reading, the tragic incident of the death of his children demonstrates the highly charged nature of the encounter with God in the Temple.
Alternatively, one could see this halacha as a message to Aaron. The death of his sons must have been a crushing blow to Aaron, and the implied message of God’s unswerving punishment of sin in immediately striking them down must have been spiritually paralyzing. Given the inability of any human to live to a standard of our perfection, Nadav and Avihu are a gloomy prediction of the inevitability of failure in our relationship with God.
It is against that backdrop that Yom Kippur comes into existence. Yom Kippur teaches the opposite: Our past does not condemn us, but instead the power of repentance is such to be able to undo the mistakes of our past; God gives us the tools for atonement and rebuilding our relationships with him.
In the immediate aftermath of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the teaching of Yom Kippur served as a message of consolation to Aaron about the power of repentance in our religious life. PJC
Rabbi Daniel Yolkut is the spiritual leader of Congregation Poale Zedeck. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.