‘Nadav and Avihu consumed by fire’ by M de Brunhoff (1904)
In this week’s parasha, Shemini, we read of the sudden death of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron. The Torah states that they brought an incense offering that God “had not commanded them” (Leviticus 10:1) and as a result were consumed in a blaze of fire. The simple meaning here is that they had performed a priestly service that they were not supposed to, or were not worthy of performing, and this is why they were consumed. Rashi brings a number of other opinions as to why they perished: One is that they brazenly “rendered halachic decisions before Moses”. Another is that they had brought the offering while intoxicated, which is why just several verses later the Torah prohibits priests from being inebriated while serving in the Temple (Leviticus 10:9).
The Arizal, in Sha’ar HaGilgulim, brings a number of explanations, too. One is from an older Midrash that Nadav and Avihu refused to get married, believing that no women were worthy to marry them. Based on this, the Arizal states that Nadav reincarnated in Samson (ch. 36). Samson, too, didn’t marry any Jewish girls, and instead married Philistine women that brought him nothing but trouble. This may have been his punishment for refusing to marry a good Jewish girl in a past life. The Arizal adds that because Nadav had served while drunk, Samson was born a nazir, and was forbidden from consuming even a drop of alcohol his entire life. The proof that Samson was a reincarnation of Nadav comes from Scripture, where in one instance (I Samuel 12:11) Samson is actually referred to as “Badan” (בדן). This name is the reverse of Nadav (נדב), hinting to their spiritual connection.
Having said all that, the Arizal gives another reason for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, and in this case not because they were sinful. Instead, he explains that Nadav and Avihu correspond to the sefirot of Netzach and Hod, emerging from the highest level of Adam’s soul (ch. 33). They died to atone for the sins of the nation, and to remove the zuhama, the spiritual impurity that the Serpent (Nachash) in Eden injected into the world. (For a deeper analysis of exactly which sin Nadav and Avihu died for and why, see ‘The Holy Souls of Nadav and Avihu’ in Garments of Light.) This idea predates the Arizal, and is found in the Zohar (III, 56b), which compares Nadav and Avihu to the two goats sacrificed on Yom Kippur. The Zohar states that the two brothers were equal in greatness to the entire Sanhedrin of seventy elders, and their deaths atoned for the sins of Israel.
‘Joshua Burns the Town of Ai’ by Gustave Doré (1866)
The Zohar’s description brings to mind a similar one from the Talmud (Sanhedrin 44a), where the Sages discuss the deaths of 36 Israelites in the Battle of Ai (Joshua 7-8). Recall that Joshua led the Israelites into battle to conquer the Holy Land. The first battle, for the city of Jericho, was a flawless victory, with not a single Israelite casualty. The second battle, however, was initially a defeat, with 36 Israelites losing their lives. While this is certainly a small number in military terms, the fact that there was any casualty at all was a shock for the nation. The Sages state that, in reality, it wasn’t even 36 soldiers, for “surely it was said, ‘about thirty six men’ [Joshua 7:5] which refers to Yair, the son of Menashe, who was equal to the greater part of the Sanhedrin.”
The Sages state that actually just one person was killed in the Battle of Ai, and he was equal to 36 of the 70 wise and righteous elders of the Sanhedrin. They extract this from the words of the Tanakh itself, which states k’shloshim v’shisha ish, literally translated as “like 36 man”. In other words, the casualty of the Battle of Ai was one man likened to 36. The Sages use the same expression elsewhere, in describing Avishai, the nephew of King David (Berakhot 62b):
…“Satan stood up against Israel and stirred up David to number Israel.” [I Chronicles 21:1] And when he did number them, he took no ransom from them and it is written, “So God sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning even to the time appointed.” [I Chronicles 21:14]
… And He said to the Angel that destroyed the people: “It is enough” [I Chronicles 21:16] Rabbi Elazar explained: “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to the Angel: ‘Take a great man among them, through whose death many sins can be expiated for them.’ At that time died Avishai son of Zeruiah, who was equal in worth to the greater part of the Sanhedrin.”
The Torah forbids taking a census of the Jewish people. The only way it is permitted to count Jews is if each person gives some kind of “ransom”, such as a half-shekel coin, and the coins are counted, not the people. In an infamous episode from the Tanakh, Satan enticed David to sin by taking a census without collecting any ransom. As a result, a plague struck the nation, taking the lives of 70,000 people, shiv’im elef ish [I Chronicles 21:14].
Following this, God told the Angel of Destruction to stop by saying rav, “it is enough”. The Sages interpret rav to mean “rabbi”—that God actually told the angel to take the life of one righteous rabbi instead. Again, the Tanakh uses the word ish, as if a single person was killed; one man equal to 70,000. This is a beautiful teaching of the Sages, and transforms what one might read as God’s strict, merciless judgement, into God’s kindness and mercy. Although 70,000 may have deserved to die, God took the life of one righteous man instead to spare all the others.
The fact that such people—Yair, Avishai, Nadav, Avihu—are always compared to a greater part of the Sanhedrin, meaning 36 people, is not a coincidence. As we’ve written before with regards to Chanukah (when we light a total of 36 candles), the number 36 is of huge significance in Judaism.
Greater Than Thirty-Six Tzadikim
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 97b) states:
Abaye said: “The world must contain no less than thirty-six righteous men in each generation who are worthy to receive the Shekhinah, for it is written: ‘Blessed are all they that wait for him’ [Isaiah 30:18]; the numerical value of ‘for him’ [lo, לו] is thirty-six.”
But that is not so, for did not Rava say: “The row [of righteous men] before the Holy One, blessed be He, consists of eighteen thousand, for it is written, ‘It shall be eighteen thousand round about?’” [Ezekiel 48:35] That is no difficulty: the former number [thirty-six] refers to those who see Him through a bright speculum, the latter [eighteen thousand] to those who contemplate Him through a dim one.
In every generation, there must be 36 perfectly righteous people in the world. There are an additional 18,000 very righteous people in each generation. The former can behold the Shekhinah—God’s Divine Presence—clearly, while the latter only dimly. The idea of the 36 righteous people, lamed-vav tzadikim, plays an important role in Judaism, especially in Kabbalistic and Hasidic texts.
The number 36 corresponds to the 36 hours that the Divine Light shone uninterrupted at the start of Creation. It is through this Divine Light that the Tzadikim are able to behold the Shekhinah. And just as this Hidden Light continues to uphold all of Creation, so too are the 36 Tzadikim said to uphold the world, as it is written: “The tzaddik is the foundation of the world” (Proverbs 10:25).
Meanwhile, we know that the Torah, too, is the foundation of the world (see, for example, Avot 1:2). Indeed, we find that there are exactly 36 individual texts in the Tanakh: the Five Books of Moses, nineteen books of Prophets, and 12 Holy Writings. (The 36 texts are usually combined into “24 Books of the Tanakh” for the sake of convenience. So, for example, the “Twelve Minor Prophets” are combined into one book, Trei Asar.) Each of the 36 Tzadikim corresponds to one “hour” of Divine Light, and to one of the Holy Scriptures. As such, they are the 36 pillars of the world. (It just so happens that there are also 36 sins for which the Torah prescribes the death penalty, though we shall leave that discussion for another time.)
From the words of our Sages, we can extract that in addition to these 36, there is one more, even greater individual who is equal to all 36 of them, to the “greater part of the Sanhedrin”. Between the two of them, Nadav and Avihu were greater than the Sanhedrin of seventy elders in their own day, as were Yair and Avishai. And it is such people that, ever so rarely, God chooses to take away to atone for the sins of many others.
The spiritual math is simple: if you have a thousand people, each with a “kilogram” of sin, and one person with 1000 “kilograms” of merit, the merit of the one can be “taken back” in order to neutralize the sins of a thousand. In this way, a great many lives can be spared. The idea makes sense in principle, and a person who is truly the most righteous of his generation would undoubtedly have no problem giving up his or her own life to save a multitude of others.
And yet, the idea is sometimes hard for modern Jews to digest because it has been hijacked, abused, and taken to an illogical extreme by Christians.
The Death of the Messiah
All of Christianity rests on the idea that Jesus, the supposed messiah, died for the sins of the world. We have already addressed the issues with Christianity on several occasions (see here, here, and here) so there is no need to do that again. What needs to be understood is where the idea comes from, and what it originally meant. The Talmud (Sukkah 52a) records the following:
What is the cause of the mourning [at the End of Days, as described in Zechariah 12:12]? Rabbi Dosa and the other Rabbis differ on the point. One explained: “The cause is the slaying of Mashiach ben Yosef” and the other explained: “The cause is the slaying of the Evil Inclination.” It is well according to him who explains that the cause is the slaying of Mashiach ben Yosef, since that agrees with the Scriptural verse, “And they shall look upon Me because they have thrust him through, and they shall mourn for him as one mourns for his only son” [Zechariah 12:10]. But according to him who explains the cause to be the slaying of the Evil Inclination, is this an occasion for mourning? Is it not rather an occasion for rejoicing? Why then should they weep?
Rav Yehudah explained: “In the time to come, the Holy One, blessed be He, will bring the Evil Inclination and slay it in the presence of the righteous and the wicked. To the righteous it will have the appearance of a towering hill, and to the wicked it will have the appearance of a hair thread. Both the former and the latter will weep; the righteous will weep saying, ‘How were we able to overcome such a towering hill!’ The wicked also will weep saying, ‘How is it that we were unable to conquer this hair thread!’ And the Holy One, blessed be He, will also marvel together with them, as it is said, ‘Thus says the Lord of Hosts: If it be marvellous in the eyes of the remnant of this people in those days, it shall also be marvellous in My eyes.’” [Zechariah 8:6]
First, we must remember that according to tradition there are two messiahs (or possibly one messiah in two phases): Mashiach ben Yosef, and then Mashiach ben David. The former dies amidst the great battles of the End of Days. For this, the people at that time will mourn. Zechariah describes a great mourning like no other, with all the families of Israel in tears. This is enough to debunk Jesus’ identification with Mashiach ben Yosef: Jesus did not die in battle, and was not mourned by all of Israel (quite the contrary). The fact that Jesus’ “father” was named Joseph means nothing, for Jesus supposedly did not have an earthly father anyway.
Now, the more important event that will happen at that same time, with the death of Mashiach ben Yosef, is the destruction of the Evil Inclination. This is, after all, the very purpose of having an “End of Days” to begin with: to destroy evil for good and usher in a perfect world. When Evil will be crushed, the people will weep. As our Sages explain, those who overcame evil and did good will weep because they will be amazed at how they were able to conquer the great temptations, while those who were evil will weep because they will realize how weak they were in falling to mere temptation. Again, Jesus’ death did not end Evil on Earth. On the contrary, one might argue that even more horrible evils were done since then, many of which were done, ironically, in the name of Jesus!
Finally, the Talmud goes on to say what will happen to Mashiach ben Yosef next:
Our Rabbis taught: The Holy One, blessed be He, will say to Mashiach ben David (may he reveal himself speedily in our days!), “Ask of me anything, and I will give it to you,” as it is said, “I will tell of the decree… this day have I begotten you, ask of me and I will give the nations for your inheritance.” [Psalms 2:7-8] But when he will see that Mashiach ben Yosef is slain, he will say to Him: “Master of the Universe, I ask of You only the gift of life.” He would answer him: “As to life, your father David has already prophesied this concerning you, as it is said, ‘He asked life from You, You gave it to him…’” [Psalms 21:5]
After his death, Mashiach ben David requests of God to bring Mashiach ben Yosef back to life. It is important to remember that this is followed by a Resurrection of the Dead of all righteous souls, not just the messiah’s. From the wording of the Talmud, we might conclude that there is indeed just one messiah: Mashiach ben Yosef dies and is resurrected as Mashiach ben David. (We can extract this from the fact that ben David seems to be asking for life for himself, and God replies that it had already been granted to you.)
In the case of Jesus, he was apparently resurrected, but then supposedly ascended to Heaven, and hasn’t been heard from in two millennia. This is not how prophecy describes the coming of Mashiach. He is supposed to come once, at the End of Days, and needs no “second coming”. He comes once, and then reigns on Earth as king of Israel. Nowhere does it state that he will come and disappear for any long duration of time. He comes once, fights great battles that engulf the whole world (as described in detail by Ezekiel and Zechariah, among other prophets), might die for the sins of Israel specifically (like Nadav and Avihu did), is mourned by all of Israel, and is then resurrected, finishes the great wars, brings peace to the world, reigns as king of Israel, regathers the Jews to the Holy Land, rebuilds the Temple, facilitates a Resurrection of the Dead, and completes his task once a perfect world is re-established.
There is no more need for him after that. He is not a god, and is never described as such. He is not supposed to be prayed to, or worshipped. He is a man. And although Scripture describes him as a child of God (as in the Psalm above), it clearly describes all of Israel as children of God (as in Deuteronomy 14:1, for example).
To summarize, the concept of unique righteous people dying to atone for the sins of others is an ancient Jewish one, and a valid one. Christians adopted it, to an extreme (ie. not to a specific generation of Jews, but for all mankind for all time) in describing Jesus. This is not surprising, for as we’ve written before, the character of Jesus was carefully constructed from Jewish texts, both Scriptural and extra-Scriptural. This is how some Jews unfortunately succumb to Christian missionaries who bring “proof” from Jewish texts. These prove nothing but the eventual coming of the true messiah—may we merit to see him soon.