Rabbi Refael Katz
Former Rosh Kollel in Johannesburg
The parasha begins with a description of the final day of the 8-day ceremony for the inauguration of the mishkan (tabernacle). The ceremonies, which began on 23 Adar, were to climax on Rosh Chodesh Nissan, with the consecration eligible to perform the avodah (service) in the Mishkan.
The parasha opens, (Vayikra, Chap 9) describing the special avodah of Aharon and the newly consecrated Cohanim, performed on the day that they assumed their new status. The narrative, however, suddenly takes a tragic turn, when, at the beginning of chap 10, Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, are burnt by a Godly fire and die whilst performing their Holy service (verses 1-3). Following the removal of their bodies (verses 4-5), Moshe instructs Aharon and his sons, Elazar and Itamar, to continue with the Mishkan’s services as normal, and to not allow their mourning to interfere with the Mishkan’s dedication ceremony (verses 6-7). The normal expressions of mourning, as well as the added stringencies applicable to an Onein (the Halachic status of someone on the day his that his close relative has died), were thus suspended, and the inauguration ceremonies are basically resumed as normal, (verses 12-15).
How is it possible to suspend one’s personal life’s tragedies and serve the nation faithfully as did Aharon and his sons on that day?
The key to our understanding may be found in verses 8-11 of our chapter. These verses interrupt our narrative with a command from Hashem to Aharon not to serve in the Mishkan whilst intoxicated. Rav Yishmael understands this mitzva’s interrupting, as also serving as a hinted explanation of the cause of Nadav and Avihu’s death- i.e. the reason why they were deserving of death, was because they served in the Mishkan whilst intoxicated. However, even this being so, the injuction to not serve whilst intoxicated need not have interrupted the flow of the narrative, and could rather have been inserted, for example at the conclusion of the Chapter.
The Natziv in his commentary Amek Davar, offers another explanation why the prohibition against serving whilst intoxicated appears at this point. In Jewish life there are many examples of the benefits of using “artificial” aids to improve one’s mood. We are instructed to enjoy “meat and wine” on shabbat and Yom Tovin order to fulfill the mitzva of “v’samachta b’chagecha – be happy in your festivals…”; similarly husbands are instructed to buy their wives new clothes prior to the chagim. Shlomo Hamelech advises in Mishlei “Give strong wine to the forlorn and wine to the bitter-souled. Let him forget his poverty and never again remember his troubles.” (Mishlei 31: 6-7)
Perhaps Aharon and his sons assumed that in order to assist them to carry out their tabernacles duties as normal, even on this day of such great personal tragedy, they should dull their senses with wine, and make use of this artificial aid, as a means of being able to perform their duties with happiness, as was expected. In order to negate this possibility, Hashem interrupts the narrative and commands against serving whilst intoxicated.
Aharon, who at this time was engaged in the lofty task of dedicating the Mishkan, needed also an elevated means of diverting his mind from his personal loss (according to the Natziv it was through learning and teaching Torah). Aharon was able to continue with dedicating the Mishkan despite personal tragedy, for he was imbued with the enormity of his task – consecrating the Mishkan as a testimony that the sin of the golden calf was forgiven and that Hashem’s shechina dwelled among the people.
The Maharal in his work “Netivot Olam” describes and elucidates 32 midot/states of being, e.g. Faith, Love of Hashem, Awe of Hashem, Learning Torah, Humility, Chesed, etc. Interestingly, “happiness” is not included. One of the explanations suggested is that happiness stems from the perfected achievement of all the other Midot described, it is achieved rather as a by- product of perfection one’s entire self.
A Kohain Gadol is obligated to continue his service in spite of personal mourning, because, in the words of the Natziv: “Due to his spiritual greatness, he is able to overcome his sadness and still serve Hashem with happiness”.