Parashas Shemini

This week’s parashah recounts the deaths of Aharon’s two sons Nadav and Avihu for offering a “foreign fire.” Afterward, the Torah lists the animals whose meat is kosher to eat. The Torah prefaces the list of kosher animals with a preamble (Vayikra 11:1-2): “And Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon to say to them, ‘Speak to the Children of Yisrael, saying ….’” The Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah 13:1 states that the pronoun “them” in this passage refers to Aharon’s two remaining sons Elazar and Isamar. The Midrash expounds: “‘The ear that hears the reproof of life (תוכחת חיים) will abide in the midst of the wise’ (Mishlei 15:31). The ear that hears the reproof of life – this refers to Aharon’s sons. Will abide in the midst of the wise – they were at the side of death, and the gained the merit of having Hashem’s words directed toward them, their father, and their father’s brother.” The Maggid explains this Midrash through an analogy to two types of merchants: a merchant who deals in old, used clothes, and a merchant who deals in newly-made goods acquired directly from the craftsmen. These two types of merchants obtain their merchandise in different locales. A merchant of the first type travels to small towns and villages populated by poor people, whose dire state forces them to sell their clothes for cheap. A merchant of the second type, by contrast, travels to affluent commercial areas. Analogously, there are two ways of learning moral lessons, one less honorable and one more honorable.
Some people learn moral lessons by watching how Hashem punishes those who rebel against Him. As they see the wicked die, they are stirred to avoid evil ways. Others learn moral lessons and becoming God-fearing by observing the righteous and the wise, and contemplating their exemplary conduct. For example, the Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah 13:5 relates that when Alexander the Great saw Shimon HaTzadik, he exclaimed: “Blessed is Hashem, the God of Shimon HaTzadik!” Shimon HaTzadik represented a fulfilment of a verse about the eminence and moral influence of the Jewish People (Devarim 28:10): “And all the nations of the world will see the Name of Hashem written upon you, and they shall be fearful on account of you” [reading ויראו ממך homiletically as “shall be fearful on account of you” rather than “shall fear you”]. One can come to fear of God through observing a righteous person. Thus, a person who contemplates the ways of the righteous has no need to go watch the wicked die in order to learn moral lessons, for he acquires moral understanding as he watches how the righteous live.
This, the Maggid says, is the idea behind the verse from Mishlei that the Midrash quotes. We can read the verse as follows: “The ear that seeks live moral counsel will abide in the midst of the wise.” Read in this way, the verse clearly conveys the message presented above. In a similar way, Elazar and Isamar observed their brothers’ death and achieved spiritual elevation thereby, but afterward they were granted the opportunity to achieve spiritual elevation in a more exalted way by hearing the word of the living God. In a related vein, although reflecting on the mortality of man is one way of acquiring moral understanding, Kohanim are commanded not to have contact with the dead (other than close relatives) because their strong spiritual constitution enables them to acquire moral understanding in other ways.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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