April 13, 2024
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Zera Shimshon on Shemini

וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי ה’ וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם וַיָּמֻתוּ לִפְנֵי ה’: (ויקרא י:ב)

“And fire went forth from before Hashem and consumed them (Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon), and they died before Hashem.” (Vayikra 10:2)

It is written in the midrash that at the time that the sons of Aharon were burnt, the malachim argued before Hashem, “Why did You split the Yam Suf for them when they left Mitzrayim? The burnt ones (the sons of Aharon who were punished) exclaimed (Eichah 5:21), ‘Hasheevainu Hashem eilecha venahshuva—Bring us back to You Hashem, and we will return.’”

The Zera Shimshon asks: it seems that this midrash does not make any sense! Firstly, how is the splitting of Yam Suf even mildly connected with the death of Aharon’s sons that the malachim mentioned it? Secondly, what did Nadav and Avihu mean by asking Hashem to help them do teshuva? Chazal teach us that after the golden calf was built Aharon took their sacrifice that they prepared to sacrifice to the golden calf, smashed it in front of them and said to them, “Look, your idol is worthless, it can’t even protect the sacrifices that people bring to it, all the more so, it can’t help you!

By doing this, Aharon caused Bnei Yisroel to be judged severely as mayzid, a malicious sin, and not only as a shogaig, an unmalicious sin, since they served the golden calf even after they realized that it was powerless. Chazal also teach us (Rashi quotes them on the pasuk (Devarim 9:20), “U’bAharon hisannaif Hashem moadei lehashmeedo—And Hashem was angry with Aharon at that time to destroy him,”) that Aharon’s punishment was that two of his children would die! From here, we see that they were punished for their father’s deeds and not for their own, so how would their teshuva help anything? And in addition to this, even if they were being punished for their own deeds, now that they have died, it is too late to do teshuva!

The Zera Shimshon explains this midrash by introducing two more ideas: The first one is written in the Gemara Avodah Zarah (4b) that the sin of the golden calf was way below the spiritual level of Bnei Yisroel at that time, and it wasn’t in their character to do it. Hashem had it happen only in order to give hope for baalei teshuva in future generations. If future generations would sin, they would not feel that their situation is irreversible, but they would reason that if the great generation of the Midbar sinned and were able to do teshuva, so can we!

The second one is that the Midrash Yalkut Shimoni writes that when Bnei Yisroel went through Yam Suf, the Malach Samech Mem argued before Hashem that since Bnei Yisroel worshiped Avodah Zarah in Mitzrayim, Hashem should not make for them miracles and let them cross through the Yam Suf unharmed. When the malach of the Yam Suf heard this argument, he started to drown them! Hashem immediately responded and said, “Fool! They only served idols in Mitzrayim because of the tremendously brutal servitude they suffered and it affected their thinking! Therefore, they should be judged as being shogagim (unmalicious) and not as mayzidim (malicious).”

According to these points, we can understand the midrash.

The melachim argued before Hashem that Aharon doesn’t deserve to get punished with the following logic. Hashem split the Yam Suf for Bnei Yisroel—even though they sinned and served idols in Mitzrayim—because they didn’t sin maliciously. In other words, unmalicious sins don’t deserve severe punishments. Therefore, Aharon’s sons shouldn’t die as a punishment for Aharon, since You, Hashem allowed Bnei Yisroel to worship the golden calf to show future generations that it is always possible to do teshuva. Aharon only helped to carry out Hashem’s plan, so why does he deserve to be punished?!

The deceased brothers quoted the pasuk, “Hashivenu Hashem elecha venahshuva—Bring us back to You, Hashem, and we will return,” not for Hashem to save them from their punishment, but for a different reason altogether. They argued that it was not only their father who caused Bnei Yisroel to sin b’mayzid, but Hashem also did! If there would never have been the incident of the golden calf, then when future generations would make a mistake, they would think that it’s not possible to do teshuva on public sins. Also, if in the future, Klal Yisroel would sin—even if they would not do teshuva for their actions—it would be considered only a shogag, since they wouldn’t know that it was possible to do teshuva at all.

Now, though, Hashem allowed Bnei Yisroel to worship the golden calf and accepted their teshuva, if future generations sin and don’t do teshuva—they will be considered to be mayzid—because they now know that they can do teshuva and still didn’t do it. Why then did Aharon deserve to be punished, since he didn’t do anything worse than Hashem?

The answer is that even if we would think that we are so bad that we can’t do teshuva, Hashem would orchestrate events that would force us to do teshuva. Therefore, only Aharon caused Bnei Yisroel to sin b’mayzid and, consequently, Aharon deserved to be punished.

This is the meaning of them quoting the pasuk, “Hashivenu Hashem elecha venahshuva—Hashem make us return and we will return to You.” They were not giving a reason why they didn’t deserve to die, but rather they said, “We are willing to accept Hashem’s judgment only if, ‘Hashivenu Hashem elecha venahshuva—Bring us back to You and we will return.’ Meaning, only if Hashem will make us return to Him—as opposed to us starting the teshuva process—which showed that there was not even a possibility for us not to do teshuva b’mayzid. Only then, would it be considered that their father, Aharon, sinned and that he deserved to be punished by their death!

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