Jewish law shows gentle consideration for mourners, but Moses, in Leviticus 10:16-20, seems to display no such compassion. There we encounter Moses acting as a sort of quality-assurance inspector at the newly inaugurated Mishkan (Tabernacle). He is checking on whether his priestly cousins, newly installed in their sacerdotal functions, have fully implemented the elaborate rules of the sacrificial cult.
Earlier the same day, two of them — Aaron, the High Priest’s elder sons, Nadab and Abihu — had been struck down after bringing “foreign fire” into the Tabernacle, and their father, probably stupefied by horror, had responded with silence. Moses had instructed his brother, Aaron, and Aaron’s two younger sons not to observe mourning practices: not to dishevel their hair, not to rend their clothing. Instead, they were to continue with the work of the sacrifices. The rest of the Israelites would mourn for Nadab and Abihu.
Now, at the end of that day, Moses inquires about the goat that had been sacrificed as a purification offering. Discovering that its flesh had been burned on the altar and not consumed by the High Priest and his family, he flies into a rage. He yells at his nephews, Eleazar and Ithamar, “Aaron’s remaining sons” — the narrator reminds us these are grieving, traumatized men — who had done the work. Their lawgiver uncle demands to know: “Why did you not eat the purification offering at the sacred site?… Look, its blood was not brought within the sacred precinct; you have to eat it in the sacred precinct, as I have been commanded!”
This time it is not Aaron who is dumbstruck but his sons. Aaron replies for them, “Look, today they offered up their purification offering and their burnt offering before the Eternal, and things of this sort befell me.” Aaron refers obliquely to the shocking death of his other sons earlier the same day. He seems unable to name the events aloud. He continues with an inference: “Had I eaten a purification offering today, would it have seemed good in the eyes of the Eternal?” Moses hears Aaron’s explanation and accepts it. Case closed.
But what is the logic of Aaron’s explanation? Is he giving some sort of technical explanation, in terms of the laws of the priesthood? He is, after all, the High Priest, and in Leviticus 6:17-23 we find that Moses has promulgated a rule about this. If an animal is sacrificed as a purification offering and its blood is not brought into the sanctuary to be sprinkled on the altar, its flesh is to be consumed by the priests who performed the offering. What, then, is the nature of Aaron’s exculpatory argument? What he has been told to refrain from is mourning; what would make him think that God would want him not to take part in the required ritual feast?
Alternatively, is Aaron offering a theological exculpation — “How could God have expected me to have partaken of a celebratory public feast when my two older sons have just been carted off to their graves?”
Ancients and moderns alike have taken up this question. One outstanding champion of the technical-explanation school is Jacob Milgrom, whose massive oeuvre on the priestly portions of the Torah sets the standard for contemporary Leviticus scholarship. Moses is concerned, Milgrom says, that the common people, seeing what the priests have done, might draw the wrong conclusion. They might think that these priests, too, like many common people, rejected the idea that a sacrifice could eliminate sin impurity by being eaten as well as by being burned. Aaron’s explanation, in this view, is that the deaths of his two sons has caused such severe impurity in the Mishkan that a communal sacrifice of the kind that had been planned was insufficient, and that his sons had understood that a higher grade of sacrifice was now called for — one that is not eaten but wholly burned. Aaron, in this priestly source, teaches his brother the prophet a thing or two about the exigencies of cultic ritual.
The theological-argument school has recently found a new advocate. Robert Alter suggests in the notes to his translation of “The Five Books of Moses” that Aaron had been told to eschew the public manifestations of mourning but not private grieving. In Aaron’s view, then, he and his sons could refrain from a sacrificial feast, and in their bereavement had in fact chosen to do just that. Aaron’s additional argument —“Can God really expect me to do that?” — is a reminder to us that considerations of empathy and sensitivity always must be allowed to temper the application of even the most justified laws and regulations.
Peretz Rodman is a Jerusalem-based teacher, translator and writer, and the moderator of an online community of Jewish educators at Bar-Ilan University’s Lookstein Center for Jewish Education. This article is dedicated to the memory of Shep Milians, a devoted Forward reader.