Aaron's Human Side: What Does the High Priest Teach Us About Loss? | Aleph Beta

What Does Aaron Teach Us About Loss?

Understanding The Human Side Of Aaron The High Priest

Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

What do we know about the inner emotional experience of Aaron the High Priest? Of Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron's two younger sons, also Priests?

In this week's video, Rabbi Fohrman tackles a very strange scene: after the sudden death of Nadab and Abihu, Aaron's two sons, Moses gets in a disagreement with Aaron's other two sons about a sacrifice they should have brought. What was this argument fundamentally about?

This lesser known story of Aaron, Eleazar, and Ithamar gives us a peek into how the family dealt with their sudden loss. Was the sacrifice mix-up by Eleazar and Ithamar an intentional or accidental transgression? An even bigger question is: Why didn't they die for it, like their dearly departed brothers?

By looking closer at the argument between Aaron and Moses, we get a rare glimpse at the human emotional side of Aaron, Eleazar, and Ithamar, behind their ritual obligations as Priests. By following the story of Aaron, Eleazar, and Ithamar, we find a poignant message about about overcoming loss.


Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Parshat Shemini. You are watching Aleph Beta. This video is dedicated in blessed memory of Glynnis Sher, Gittel Bas Eliyahu, by her loving son Dani, her daughter-in-law Jenny, and her grandchildren Joshua, Cassie and Leo. Thank you so much for your generosity.

If you would like to dedicate a video please feel free to contact us and we'll be happy to arrange for it.

This week's Parsha contains the famous story of the deaths of the two sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, during the consecration of the Tabernacle procedure. When they bring incense in a way that wasn't commanded, a fire comes out from the Kodesh Kedoshim, from the Holy of Holies, consuming them, and they die. The tragic moment, much ink has been spilled in trying to understand it, we took a stab at this in last year's video on Parshat Shemini, I encourage you to take a look.

But right now I'd like to focus with you on a very obscure story that takes place right afterwards, the story doesn't get a lot of press because it is so obscure, but here's what happens.

The Lesser Known Bible Story of Aaron, Eleazar, and Ithamar

Right after the deaths of Nadav and Avihu evidently there was a Chatat – a sin offering – that was to be brought in the Tabernacle. And a dispute erupts between, of all people, Moses and the two surviving sons of Aaron. Andthe dispute concerns how it was that the Chatat was offered. Moses says that it wasn't offered properly and Aaron comes to their defense and says that it really was. And they talk about just these really arcane laws and you're thinking, why is it that they're even discussing this? I mean there was this terrible tragedy, their brothers have just died and now we're getting into whether they messed up and exactly how it is that they offered the Chatat, whether they ate the meat, they didn't eat the meat? Who even cares about this? And also, the placement of the story seems so strange. The brothers of these people have died, now you're arguing with them over whether a Chatat was eaten properly? Why are we debating sacrificial law now? But I think if you look carefully at the story, that's actually what the story is about - it's about what it means to struggle with the death of your brothers.

Let me explain what I mean here, and in order to do that I really need to take you back to a paradigm that I introduced to you back in Parshat Vayikra, as to how to understand three basic types of offerings: an Olah, a Shlamim and a Chatat.

Studying the Backstory to Understand Aaron's Reaction

The Chatat is the sin offering, what we're talking about over here in our little story involving Aaron and his children and Moses. In order to really understand what was happening with that Chatat and what the significance of eating that Chatat is, I want to contrast it for you with an Olah offering, and this was really the argument that I made to you back in Parshat Vayikra. That when you look at an Olah, an offering that goes entirely up to God and you look at a Chatat, an offering that part of its meat is consumed by the Kohanim, these two offerings, the Olah and the Chatat, are actually sort of inverses of each other.

Let's talk about the tension between an Olah and a Chatat. So the argument I made to you back in Vayikra, is that in order to understand a Chatat, you sort of have to go back to the first great sin of humanity, the eating of forbidden fruit. God had given a world of paradise to humanity, all these trees, but instead we didn't go for any of the trees that we were permitted to eat from. The only thing that made a difference for us was the one tree we couldn't have. You see the tree of knowledge of good and evil was the master's tree and the desire to eat from it on some level was the desire to play God, to pretend that I could have the Master's one tree, that I could play Master of the garden.

That was the first transgression, the first thing that was off-limits to mankind. Later on when the Torah is given, the Torah introduces other things that are off-limits, but by extension in every one of these negative commandments there's a little bit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. There's a sense that by honoring those commands, we're honoring God's sovereignty, we're acknowledging that this world that we have is a gift from God, and therefore we honor the restrictions that He places upon us. It's the least we can do to show that we understand that we're guests in this great garden that God has given us, in this world that God has given us.

So what happens then when you inadvertently transgress one of these negative commands? When you've done this you've engaged in a kind of sin; an imbalance has been introduced into your relationship with God. And, with a sin offering you try symbolically at least to correct that imbalance, to re-balance the scale, with a curious kind of reciprocity. Going back to that paradigmatic Garden of Eden sin, you ate from something that was out of bounds, that was in God's world, so you give something back to God to be eaten. Now obviously God doesn't have a mouth to eat something but that's what the Kohanim are there for. God gives the Kohanim this meat from the Chatat offering, and says, you have this on behalf of Me, and it will bring balance back to this relationship again.

So if that's what a Chatat is, what is an Olah, the inverse of a Chatat? If the impetus for a Chatat is that I crossed over illegitimately, so to speak, into God's domain and there was one special thing for God and I took that one special thing, then the impetus for an Olah is that in my domain there's one special thing, the thing that is most mine, and I just feel like I have to abandon that, I have to abandon everything and just give it to God, just voluntarily. Because there really is no domain that's mine - everything is God's.

Back in Parshat Vayikra we talked about the Akeidah – the Binding of Isaac – as the great paradigm for Olahs. What's the one special thing you have? It's your child, and Abraham was ready to give back his child. God didn't take it, but that was the sense of abandonment. Atah yadati ki yareh Elokim atah – the angel says; now I know that you're someone who is in awe of God. That's what awe is, just a feeling of complete abandonment; nothing is mine, even the thing that appears to be most mine. I give everything to You.

So now let's come back to our story. Does this remind you of anything? They had given everything – that which was most theirs, their own kin, they had watched God take that. Vayidom Aharon – and Aaron had been silent. How could he accept it? It's an outrage. How could You do this, how could You take them, they were just trying to come close to You? But in his silence, Aaron had touched that energy, that energy of awe, that energy of abandonment. Abraham in one of the very first Olahs that the Torah ever records had been asked to give the thing that was most his, his child, back to God, but at the last moment God had said, no. But here at the last moment God didn't say no, God took that one thing from Aaron, his children, and Aaron had been silent and accepted it. It was the abandonment energy of the Olah.

Why Did Moses Fight with the Priests Aaron, Eleazar, and Ithamar?

And now let's go to the text and read this little dispute here. Just after the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. A Chatat is offered in the Mishkan, on behalf of the entire community, but it wasn't offered properly. V'et se'ir hachatat darosh darash Moshe – Moshe enquired after this Chatat and found – v'hinei soraf – it was entirely burned, as if it were an Olah.

Vayiktzof al Elazar v'al Itamar benei Aharon – and he became angry at Elazar and Itamar the surviving sons of Aharon. He said to them; Maduah loh achaltem et hachatat – why didn't you eat the Chatat? Ki kadosh kedoshim hee – it's the holiest of the holies; V'otah natan lachem laseit et avon ha'eidah – the meat of the Chatat is given to you in order to attain atonement for the people.

Moses is making the point about how a Chatat works. People are giving something to God, so to speak, to eat; it becomes Kadosh Kedoshim, it becomes taken in by God's domain, it's the Holiest of the Holies. And then the Kohanim, they eat the meat to complete the circle, to affect atonement. What's the role of the Kohanim here? They're being called upon to take something and in so doing, they restore the boundaries of the Divine Estate. Those boundaries had been violated in a sin; with the eating of a Chatat the circle is closed and the boundary is restored. The ones who illegitimately ate from something which should have been God's, have now given something back for God, so to speak, to eat, and the Kohanim do their part to restore that boundary.

But what had these Kohanim, Elazar and Itamar, they had lived through the completely opposite energy of a Chatat, the energy of an Olah. And they ended up treating this offering, this Chatat, not as a Chatat, but allowing it to be entirely consumed as if it were an Olah. They didn't eat the meat, they felt they couldn't take it on behalf of God somehow.

Understanding the Loss of Aaron, Eleazar, and Ithamar

Yes, they were Kohanim but they were also human beings, and as a human, as a private, individual citizen what had they just lived through? Utter loss, utter abandonment, no boundaries whatsoever. If you're Aaron, grappling with the unspeakable loss, you say to yourself: Boundaries?! The very word is an outrage, there are no boundaries. I am nothing, I can take nothing, everything has been taken from me, all I can do is to stand still and allow that to happen.

That's the energy of an Olah. That's what they had gone through. That's Aaron's response to Moses. Today the Chatat was brought, he said; Vatikrenah oti ka'eileh – but look what has befallen me, the loss of my children. V'achalti chatat hayom – and on that day would I eat a Chatat on behalf of God? Hayitav b'einei Hashem – do you think God would find that pleasing? How could I take even on behalf of God – how could I assert boundaries even on behalf of God, when I have nothing left to give, when everything has been taken from me? When I feel that there's just no boundaries left, there's no boundary that I can assert.

The Human Side of Aaron the High Priest

A Kohen is a representative of the Divine Estate on the one hand but he is also a human on the other hand, and sometimes those spiritual energies collide. This was one instance in which they did. Vayishma Moshe – and Moshe heard. Vayitav b'einav – and it was okay in his eyes. You know when you're a High Priest that almost always eclipses your role as a private individual. But not always.  And for one, brief moment, Aaron the human, in his own struggle with God, had to eclipse Aaron the High Priest, and it was okay.

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