Death Giving Meaning to Life

Parashat Tzav / Shabbat Hagadol; the process of the priests’ consecration is a threshold moment in the creation of a class society.

It takes seven days to complete the process of preparing the Portable Tabernacle, its vessels, utensils and the people who will participate in the rituals held there. These seven days are referred to as the “days of ... consecration” (Leviticus 8:33), and they climax the following day, when the tabernacle is formally inaugurated. Moses is commanded to take Aaron and his sons − along with their special garments, their offerings and the oil of anointment − and bring them into the ohel mo’ed, the tent of meeting. After anointing and consecrating the vessels of the tabernacle, Moses does the same for the altar, its laver and base, as well as its various utensils. Directly afterward, the Torah relates: “... he poured of the anointing oil upon Aaron’s head, and anointed him, to sanctify him” (Lev. 8:12).

Aaron and his sons are objectified here, literally. Their uniqueness vis-a-vis other people is expressed both in the fact that they are allowed to enter the special, “other” space, and in their ostensible role as objects that are used in the ritualistic dialogue between the people and God.

Consecration of Aaron and his Sons

After the anointment and presentation of the various offerings on the altar, the priests receive the following command: “And at the door of the tent of meeting shall ye abide day and night seven days, and keep the charge of the Lord, that ye die not; for so I am commanded” (Lev. 8:35).

The process of the priests’ consecration is a threshold moment in the creation of a class society. An ordinary individual is turned into a priest: He is extracted from his day-to-day life, anointed and told to remain in the tabernacle for seven days, during which time he essentially becomes one of its vessels. A certain part of his personality is set aside so that he can fulfill his new role: He undergoes a process of being distanced from mundane life so that he can continue to mediate between it and God.

In Parashat Shemini, which will be read two weeks from tomorrow, after Passover has ended, the Torah will depict the dramatic climax of the process of the tabernacle’s inauguration. On the eighth day of this process, two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, enter the sanctuary, offering a “strange fire” (Lev. 10:1), and subsequently die.

One midrash offers a new take on the above-mentioned days of consecration, interpreting them not as a time during which priests are preparing for service in the tabernacle, but rather as the period preceding the death of Aaron’s sons. The midrash opens with a verse from Ecclesiastes, “Whoso keepeth the commandment shall know no evil thing” ‏(8:5‏). The custom of taking a verse from one part of the Bible out of its original context, and inserting into another part of the Bible, as it were, is characteristic of midrashic literature.

Thus, in the following midrash, the verse from Ecclesiastes is said to describe Aaron during the seven days of consecration: ‘“Whoso keepeth the commandment shall know no evil thing.’ To whom does this verse refer? To Aaron, as it is written, ‘And at the door of the tent of meeting shall ye abide day and night seven days.’

Moses said to Aaron and his sons, ‘You will be in mourning for seven days, just as God was in mourning before bringing on the flood.’

“How do we know that God was in mourning? It is written, ‘And it repented the Lord [or, the Lord repented] that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him at his Heart’ (Genesis 6:6) ...

“God observed seven days of mourning before bringing on the flood, as it is written, ‘And it came to pass after the seven days, that the waters of the flood were upon the earth’ (Gen. 7:10). Moses said to Aaron the priest and his sons: ‘Just as God was in mourning before bringing on the flood, so you must be in mourning before he inflicts damage upon you.’ Aaron and his sons began a process of mourning without knowing why they were doing so. Why? ‘Whoso keepeth the commandment shall know no evil thing’” (Midrash Tanhuma, Parashat Shemini:1).

According to a literal reading of the verses in Parashat Shemini, the deaths of Nadab and Abihu are an immediate “reaction” to the sin of bringing strange fire into the tabernacle. However, the midrash restructures the story of the brothers’ death, interpreting it as the high point of the process of the tabernacle’s inauguration. In the midrash, the seven days of consecration are portrayed as the seven-day period of mourning in Judaism, the shivah − but the days of consecration are described there as part of a reverse process, whereby mourning actually precedes a death. The midrash draws a comparison between the seven days of consecration and the seven days during which God mourned for the human beings who would perish in the flood he was about to send to earth. According to the midrash, an explanation of the comparison lies in the fact that, in both cases − i.e., of the flood that God creates on earth, and of the fate of Aaron’s two sons − the death sentence is known in advance. In the story of Noah and the flood, God announces the death sentence toward the end of the the first Torah reading in the Book of Genesis, Parashat Bereisheet: “And the Lord said: ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the earth” (Gen. 6:7). The idea that the deaths of Nadab and Abihu were decreed in advance is an innovation introduced by this midrash.

The verse from Ecclesiastes refers to the fortunate lot of the person who observes God’s commandments and who as a consequence will not come to harm. However, the midrash in question places that verse in a new context, inserting it into this week’s reading and interpreting it as referring to Aaron the priest. Aaron is thus that individual who “keepeth the commandment”; he sits for seven days in the tabernacle as commanded by Moses, although he “know[s] no evil thing.” The midrash interprets these words literally as meaning that Aaron has no idea of the terrible fate that awaits him. Although Aaron and his sons “yoshvim shivah” − observe the seven-day period of mourning − they do not know why they are doing so; only the deaths of Nadab and Abihu reveal the reason why they were in mourning.

This reverse process of mourning and death that is depicted in the midrash, where Aaron and his sons grieve without precisely knowing why, sheds a new light on the period of consecration of the tabernacle: There is ostensibly a possibility that each mourner is mourning his own death. Aaron and his sons sit in the sacred space, removed from the people, in the middle of a process of objectification that turns them into the entity that links heaven and earth.

Mourning is thus redefined here: It is not necessarily a response to the death of another person, but rather a process of individual, inner transformation, whereby a person deals with the possibility of his own impending death. In this sense, the process of mourning is not preparation for a game of Russian roulette, in which one of those present will surely die, but rather for a “partial” death of every one of those present. The priests’ removal from everyday life, their entry into the tabernacle and the profound transformation they experience is death in miniature. Only at the end of the process does death become consolidated and realized, targeting Nadab and Abihu.

It is the way of the world that death is invariably a surprise. The shivah enables a mourner to gradually rejoin the world of the living. However, when the process of mourning precedes the moment of death, mourning is transformed from a process of returning to life into one of gradually bidding farewell to it. In the above midrash the fatal moment − of the deaths of Aaron’s sons and of the generation of the flood − is redefined and presented not as a final separation from life, but rather as a formative event that sparks a profound metamorphosis in the relationship between the person who remains behind and God. Death is thus portrayed as granting meaning to life.