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Parashat Shemini: Crying for the Sons of Aharon

In Parashat Shemini (10:1-2), we read of the death of Aharon’s two older sons, Nadab and Abihu, who were consumed by a heavenly fire when they brought an incense offering inside the Mishkan on the day the Mishkan was inaugurated. This was a grave national tragedy, which transformed a day of great joy and celebration into a day of mourning.

In the wake of Nadab and Abihu’s death, Moshe presented a number of instructions to their bereaved father, Aharon, and then said, "Your brethren, the entire House of Israel, shall cry for that which G-d has consumed" (10:6). It appears as though Moshe issued a command to the nation to cry and mourn the loss of Nadab and Abihu.

The obvious question arises as to why such a command was necessary. Nadab and Abihu were two of the four Kohanim who that very day began serving in the Mishkan for the first time. They were righteous, beloved young men, who died while bringing an offering to G-d. Nothing could be more tragic. Did Beneh Yisrael need a special command to cry?

Interestingly, this is not the only time when we find a "command" to cry for Nadab and Abihu. The Mishna Berura (621), citing from the Zohar, writes that it is proper for one to try to bring himself to tears on Yom Kippur thinking about the tragic death of Nadab and Abihu. Indeed, we follow the custom to sing before the Torah reading on Yom Kippur a special hymn in a slow, mournful tone about Nadab and Abihu. Just as Moshe encouraged the people to cry over Nadab and Abihu, we, too, make an effort to grieve and cry over their deaths. How do we explain this crying?

We might suggest an answer based on the well-known story told in Masechet Berachot (22b) of the final moments of Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakai’s life. His students gathered around his deathbed, and they saw he was crying. They asked why he cried, and he explained, "Two paths are before me – one to Gan Eden and one to Gehinam, and I do not know to which I am being led. Shall I not cry?" It seems, at first glance, that Rabban Yohanan cried because he was afraid he might be led to Gehinam. But could this possibly be true? Did Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakai, the great leader and sage, really fear that he might be sentenced to Gehinam?

The answer, perhaps, is that Rabban Yohanan was referring to one of the most dangerous schemes of the Yeser Ha’ra. Often, knowing that a person will not succumb to temptation, the Yeser Ha’ra will try to lure a person to sin by disguising the sin as a Misva. A truly righteous, devoted person will remain strong and steadfast when faced with temptation, but is vulnerable when an evil deed appears to him as a Misva. In his great love for Misvot, he could easily be misled and commit the forbidden act. For example, a person might consider it a great Misva to embarrass somebody who is less religiously observant than he, or to spread negative information about him. When a sin is clothed as a Misva, even the most righteous and purest Sadik is at risk.

This was Rabban Yohanan’s fear. He cried because the Yeser Ha’ra has a way of confusing the roads to Gan Eden and to Gehinam. The Yeser Ha’ra is able to make a sin look like a Misva, thus posing a formidable challenge even for somebody like Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakai. Rabban Yohanan told his disciples that although he was confident that he avoided the clear-cut sins, he feared that he may have on occasion followed the wrong path, choosing the road that leads to Gehinam because the Yeser Ha’ra made it appear as though that road leads to Gan Eden.

The commentators give several different explanations for the precise nature of Nadab and Abihu’s sin for which they were killed. All agree, however, that Nadab and Abihu thought they were doing the right thing. These were, as mentioned, righteous men, and undoubtedly, they committed the act thinking they were performing a sacred, sublime act of service to Hashem. And this is why Moshe Rabbenu instructed the people to cry. He wanted them to take note of the grave danger that lurks, as the Yeser Ha’ra makes sins look like Misvot. On Yom Kippur, too, as part of our process of introspection and repentance, we need to reflect upon the message of Nadab and Abihu’s death. We need to remember that many things we do thinking they are noble and commendable are, in fact, sinful. And this realization should bring us to tears, just as it led Rabban Yohanan to weep on his deathbed.

How do we avoid this danger? What can we do to ensure we do not mistake sins for noble acts?

Our Rabbis give us two pieces of advice. First, we need to pray, and beseech G-d for the clarity and wisdom we need to carefully distinguish between right and wrong, and to avoid sinful conduct even when it appears virtuous. Secondly, we need to learn, study and consult with Rabbis. Yosef’s brothers thought they were doing something noble by selling Yosef as a slave, figuring he posed grave danger to the family. If they had consulted with Yaakob Abinu, they would have realized their mistake, and this tragic story would never have happened. The more we learn and the more we seek guidance from our Rabbis, the more capable we will be of distinguishing between acts that are noble and acts that are sinful, so we can avoid the dangerous traps set for us by the Yeser Ha’ra.

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