How to study Chazal
One who attempts to seriously understand the words of Chazal is not infrequently confounded by their insistence on explaining Biblical events or actions of Biblical figures that appear to be at variance or contradict what the verses themselves explicitly state. Some resolve this difficulty by recourse to the purported "imaginative" or folkloristic element of their writings, an altogether unsatisfactory approach to those of us who appreciate the rigor and exactness of Rabbinic interpretation in legal and moral spheres. The following presents a considered, respectful and consistent approach to one such "difficult" passage found in this parsha.
And Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aharon, took either of them his censor, and put fire thereon, and offered strange fire before the L-rd, which he commanded them not. And there went out fire from before the L-rd, and devoured them, and they died before the L-rd. Then Moshe said unto Aharon: This is that L-rd spake, saying I will be sanctified in them that come nigh unto me, and before all the people I will be glorified. And Aharon held his peace (Vayikra, 10: 1-3).
The reason for Nadav and Avihu's death seems to be explicit (foreign fire), yet the Sages provide us with other explanations that appear to have no resonance with what is actually stated. What follows is a schema to analyse these and other such statements.
We start with the premise that the number of offered explanations directly correlates with the magnitude of the difficulty. The sheer number of Midrashic comments on these verses suggests to us the existence of a major difficulty that should be immediately obvious, and yet we fail to see it. This should impel us to carefully re-read the passage, with all out reading tools unsheathed and in use. Having done that, we discover that there is, in fact, an obvious gap that would be immediately apparent to native speakers of Biblical Hebrew, even if we failed to appreciate or notice it.
All of the verbs in these sentences are in the past perfect form and utilize the device of Vav Hahipuch, except the word spake (spoke in modern English) which is in preterite. In general, this indicates that its action preceded that of other verbs in the phrase; so that, "which the L-rd spoke, saying I will be glorified", preceded the taking of the censors. If so, G-d's decision (saying) to take Nadav and Avihu's life must have been made in before their taking of the strange fire. What precipitated that decision? We do not know -a major gap has been opened that now requires filling in.
How do the Sages fill in gaps? In general, in six possible ways:
1. Reading forward. This is the way that we are conditioned to read in our own place and time. We assume that the background presented before the current paragraph or sentence was presented in order to provide intelligibility to what we are reading now.
2. Reading backwards. This was probably a common technique of serious readers in ancient times. Books were scarce and highly regarded, they were read for edification, with utmost seriousness, and the need for cross-referencing was taken for granted.
3. By an appeal to immediate context.
4. By an appeal to distant context, including descriptions of the event or person in other places or descriptions of similar events, situations or people.
5. Appeal to generally known ways of human behavior or psychology or an appeal to verses in Wisdom Books that describe or define such behavior.
6. By an appeal to well established points of Hashkafa, theology or religion.
At times, several ways together are brought to bear upon filling the gap.
Let us now see how statements of Chazal about the sin of Nadav and Avihu fall under this paradigm. My intention is not to classify all of the explanations found in the midrashim, but solely to present an example of each. I hope, with Hashem's help, to have opportunities to show how this approach applies in other instances. Seeing that it works time and time again accrues to it true explanatory power.
Once a problem has been identified, the existing midrashim can be classified using the above schematic.
Chag Kosher V'Someach.
1. Reading forward.
In this group fall numerous midrashim that temporally relocate their sin to the preceding parsha and blame Nadav and Avihu for not taking counsel from Moshe, Aharon, or from each other, or in teaching Halacha in front of Moshe, their Master. A group of midrashim (see Yalkut 524, 10 and Toras Kohanim ibid), explicitly relate it to the Heavenly Fire that is described just before.
2. Reading backwards.
"R. Ishmael says: they entered after having drunk wine, and proof to that is that after the (description of their) death, He warned the remaining ones that they shall not enter drunk into the Holy Place (Rashi to Vaykra 10,10 from Tanchuma Acharei 6)." Here the parsha that mmediately follows provides the information to explain this one.
3. Appeal to immediate context - the fact that the immediately preceding and immediately following, Moshe and Aharon are main actors. The sin must have then also involved these actors.
"And it was already that Moshe and Aharon walked on a path and Nadav and Avihu walked behind them and all of Israel after them. Said Nadav to Avihu: when will these two old men die and I and you will lead the generation (Sanhedrin 52a)". In this class are also the statements cited above that blame them for not seeking advice from Moshe and Aharon (Toras Kohanim Acharei 16, 1).
4. Distant context.
"From Sinai (as described in Shemos 24, 1-4), they took (what was) allotted to them". When they saw Moshe and Aharon going first and they (Nadav and Avihu) after them, and all of Israel after them…Nadav said to Avihu: In a while these two old men will die and I and you will lead the congregation (Toras Kohanim Shemini 17)". The nature of their sin and consequent punishment is sought in the only previous description of the personajes found in the telling of our passage. A similar approach is taken by the midrash quoted by Rashi ibid 10 from Tanchuma Bhaaloscha 16 who explains that Nadav, Avihu and the elders feasted their eyes too freely of the Vision of "G-d of Israel". Although they were already culpable at that time, G-d did not wish to mar the general joy and waited until the dedication of the Mishkan to exact retribution.
5. Appeal to general knowledge about how human beings work and act.
Torah Shelema in Shemos 24, n.5 explains that the above quoted gemara in Sanhedrin together with the ones that blame them for not taking counsel, not marrying etc (in the Yalkut ibid) reflect Chazal's determination that pride was at the root of their fall. This group of midrashim seeks to fill the gap through an understanding of human nature. Pride is certainly a common enough failing of young leaders; by applying this insight to the gap in our narrative, the gap is filled in a manner consonant with wisdom.
While this series of steps is certainly not exhaustive nor is it the only possible one, I find it to be quite powerful and useful in approaching and classifying variant Midrashic comments around one theme. I hope that you find it useful as well.
Addendum to Midrash - Tsav/ Haggadah
Last week we explored Haggadah as a midrashic text. During Seder I came across a passage in R. Reuven Margolius introduction to his Haggadah in which he draws the same conclusion from the style of the Haggadah. He suggests that the child asking questions corresponds to the customary design of a public derasha which started from a student's question (in his usual way he supports this with many references) and then meandered through assorted subjects, praised the Torah and its students, told stories of Sages and Forefathers, and ended up by ultimately answering the original question. In the same fashion, the head of the family functions as the Darshan, the son as the student who asks the question, and the haggadah as the customary derasha with all of its customary components.
While R. Margolius does not subscribe to the thesis that was developed and presented last week, his observation is illuminating and of great interest.
The Yalkut brings: R. Levi said: Many women were sitting abandoned (agunos) waiting for them (Nadav and Avihu). What did they say? Our uncle is king, our maternal uncle is Nasi, our father is the High Priest, we are nobles of priesthood - what woman is good enough for us? R. Nachman said: Why "His youths consumed fire"? Because "…his young women were not consummated" (Tehilim 68).
Nadav and Avihu were punished by death for making potential brides wait. Yet, how did it help those women? Before, they sat waiting for them and there was at least some hope of eventual marriage. Now that Nadav and Avihu died, these women were destined to be forever disappointed. Besides, why does the Yalkut say that this affected "many women"; at most only two brides, one destined for Nadav and one for Avihu, should have been rendered agunos?
It is said that R. Chaim of Sanz gave shadchonus gelt (matchmakers fee) to anyone who suggested a potential shudduch. He explained this behavior by pointing out that in Heaven there is a list of all the potential shidduchim that must be tried but will not work out before the final, the right shidduch on the list, is finally reached. In this way, every suggestion brings us a little closer to the true intended.
Nadav and Avihu , by not accepting suggestions, held up many potential lists from proceeding to their ultimate destination. This retarded many marriages. The only solution was to remove them from these lists, and so it was.
1 Sae Bachur 1:74. 12, Rashi Shemos 24, 1 and Bareishis 4,1.
2 For example: And son of a Jewish woman came out and cursed (Vayikra 24, 1). "Where did he come out from? R. Berakhiah says for the portion (just) preceding he came out... (Vayikra Rabba 32, 3)
3 For example, the Tergum Yerushalmi's fills in the gap in Bareishis 4, 8 (And Kain said to his brother Hevel and it was when they were in the field...) by appealing to verse 9, wherein Kain's attempts to fool the Almighty. From this the Targum deduces that Kain spoke to Hevel words of heresy.
4 For an example in reference to the above note, see Bareishis Rabbah 22, 16.
5 As in Shabbos 55 - "Reuven did not sin". I must point out that this example, as well as that of David ibid also qualify under item 4, for both of them are wholly inconsistent with the portrait of Reuven and David painted elsewhere in Tanach.
6 Unlike the previously cited passage form Sanhedrin, this one clearly refers their sin to Sinai. The comparison between this passage in Toras Kohanim and the parallel passage in the Yalkut that I quoted in #5 is instructive. It seems that the original midrash consisted solely of the version quoted in Sanhedrin. It subsequently was interpreted and developed differently by these respective Midrashic sources. The former related it to the events at Sinai while the latter related it other Midrashic traditions that located the sin of the sons of Aharon in their pride. Consequently an essentially identical tradition was presented in radically different contexts by the editors of the respective midrashim.