Tag Archives: Nimrod

The First Pesach: Did the Patriarchs Celebrate Passover?

The holiday of Passover commemorates the Exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt over three thousand years ago. The Torah tells us that because of their hasty departure, the dough of the Israelites did not have time to rise, hence the consumption of matzah. Yet, the term matzah appears in the Torah long before the Exodus! We read in Genesis 19:3 that Lot welcomed the angels into his home and “made them a feast, and baked matzot, and they ate.” Since the angels came to Lot immediately after visiting Abraham and Sarah to announce the birth of Isaac at that time next year (Genesis 18:10), the Sages learn from this that Isaac was born on Passover. Of course, the Exodus only took place four hundred years after Isaac’s birth! How is it that the patriarchs are already eating matzah?

An Eternal Torah

Although the Torah was given to the Israelites following the Exodus, Jewish tradition affirms that the Torah is eternal, and even predates existence. A famous verse in the Zohar (II, 161a) states that “God looked into the Torah and created the universe.” Adam knew the whole Torah, and was taught its deepest secrets by the angel Raziel. Many of these teachings were passed on by Adam to future generations, down to Noah, then his son Shem, and eventually to the Patriarchs who, according to tradition, studied at Shem’s academy. So, while the Torah tradition officially dates back to Sinai, in some ways it dates back all the way to Creation! It’s also important to keep in mind that the Patriarchs were prophets, which means that even though they did not have a physical, written Torah, there is no reason why they could not have received the Torah’s wisdom directly from God.

As such, it is said that the Patriarchs kept the entire Torah and fulfilled all the mitzvot. When Jacob sends a message to Esau after his sojourn in Charan he tells him “I have lived [garti] with Laban” (Genesis 32:5). On this, Rashi says that garti (גרתי) is an anagram of taryag (תרי״ג), the 613 commandments, meaning that despite living under the oppressive Laban for twenty years, Jacob still observed all 613 commandments. Yet, this is impossible since Jacob married two sisters—a clear Torah prohibition! Similarly, when Abraham meets Melchizedek (ie. Shem) following his victory over the Mesopotamian kings, he tells him that he will not take any reward whatsoever, not even “a thread or strap” (Genesis 14:23). For this, the Sages say, Abraham’s descendants merited the mitzvah of tzitzit (the threads) and tefillin (the straps). In that case, Abraham himself did not wear tefillin or tzitzit. From such instances we see that the patriarchs did not keep the Torah completely, at least not the Torah as we know it.

Emanations of Torah

While Kabbalistic texts often point out that the Torah is eternal and served as the very blueprint of Creation, they also go into more detail to explain that this primordial Torah was not quite the same as the Torah we have today. Each of the four mystical universes (Asiyah, Yetzirah, Beriah, Atzilut) has an ever-more refined level of Torah, with the highest being the Torah of Atzilut. Our Torah is the one of Asiyah, and is full of mitzvot only due to Adam’s sin and the corruption of mankind. In Olam HaBa, the Torah of Atzilut will finally be revealed, which is why Jewish tradition holds that many mitzvot will no longer apply in that future time. This is said to be the meaning of Isaiah 51:4 where God proclaims that in the messianic times “a Torah will go forth from Me”; and of Jeremiah 31:30 where God says He will forge a brit chadashah, a “new covenant”, with Israel. (This latter term was usurped by Christians for their “New Testament”.)

An even more intriguing idea is that the “New Torah” will be composed of the exact same letters as the current one we possess, just rearranged to form new words! Yet another is based on the well-known principle that the Heavenly Torah is composed of “black fire on white fire”. This is often used to explain the fact that the Torah actually has 304,805 letters, even though it is always described as having 600,000 letters (one for each Israelite at Mt. Sinai)—there are 304,805 letters of “black fire” and the rest are the invisible letters of “white fire”. Gershom Scholem cites a number of Kabbalistic and Hasidic texts suggesting that these currently-invisible “white fire” letters are the true eternal Torah! (See Scholem’s Kabbalah, pgs. 171-174, for a complete analysis of these concepts.)

It is this primordial Torah that was originally taught to Adam, and was passed down through his descendants to the Patriarchs, who carefully observed it. As such, it appears that eating matzah is an eternal mitzvah that already appeared in the primordial Torah before the Exodus and the revelation of the current Torah of Asiyah. What was the meaning behind that consumption of matzah?

Bread of Faith

Matzah is called the “bread of faith”. It symbolizes our faithfulness to God, who took us out of Egypt to be His people: “Let My people go so that they may serve Me” (Exodus 7:16, 26). Further emphasizing this point, the word matzot is spelled exactly like mitzvot. This simple, “humble” bread symbolizes our subservience to God’s commands. We are His faithful servants, just as the Patriarchs were His faithful servants. So they, too, ate matzah as a sign of their faith. They ate matzah because God had liberated them, too, from various hardships.

The very first Patriarch, Abraham, was miraculously saved from Nimrod’s furnace. He also dwelled in Egypt for a time before God miraculously brought him out of there with great wealth, just as his descendants would do centuries later. And then came his greatest test of faith: the Akedah. Amazingly, the apocryphal Book of Jubilees connects this event with the future Passover holiday. In chapter 18, it suggests that God commanded the Akedah to Abraham on the 15th of Nisan. As the Torah states, Abraham journeyed for three days before the Akedah happened and then, naturally, it took him three days to return home. Thus, the whole ordeal spanned seven days, and when Abraham returned, he established a seven-day “festival to Hashem” from the 15th of Nisan. The future seven-day Passover holiday would happen on those same days in that same month.

“Abraham’s Sacrifice”, a 15th century piece of Timurid-Mongolian art

While the Sages do debate whether some of the Torah’s major events (including Creation itself) happened in the month of Tishrei or Nisan, the accepted Jewish tradition is that the Akedah happened in Tishrei. Nonetheless, it is quite fitting that the Binding of Isaac should happen on Passover, when Isaac was born. In this case, the ram that Abraham ultimately offered in place of Isaac would serve as a proto-Pesach offering. After all, the ram is nothing but a male sheep, and it is the ram that is the astrological sign of Nisan, and it was those ram-headed gods that the Egyptians worshipped that needed to be slaughtered by the Israelites (as discussed last week). Whatever the case, the Book of Jubilees offers an intriguing possibility for the spiritual origins of Passover, and for why the Patriarchs themselves ate matzot long before the Exodus.

Hammurabi, Abraham, and an Eye for an Eye

This week’s Torah reading is Mishpatim, literally “ordinances”, which is primarily composed of legal matters, as its name suggests. One of the most famous Torah phrases is found in this parasha: “you shall give a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…” (Exodus 21:23-24). In legal terms, this is known by the Latin lex talionis, the law of retaliation.

Most people are well aware of the fact that in Judaism, this verse was never taken literally. It does not mean that if one person poked out the eye of another, then his eye gets poked out in turn. A simple example: what if the person doing the poking out is blind? Then poking out his eye in retaliation wouldn’t accomplish anything! And so, Jewish law is unequivocal on the fact that the Torah verse simply means that the punishment should fit the crime. In most cases, the punishment comes in the form of appropriate monetary compensation. The compensation should include medical expenses, lost wages, and the costs for the damages, both physical and emotional.

The Vilna Gaon had a beautiful way of proving that the Torah never meant retaliation, but financial remuneration instead. In Hebrew, the verse literally says “an eye under an eye” (ayin tachat ayin). The word for eye is עין, where the first letter is “under” (ie. alphabetically before) the letter פ, the second letter is under the letter כ, and the final letter is under ס. The letters above spell כסף, literally “money”. Thus, when the Torah says an eye under an eye, it secretly hints to monetary compensation.

In Roman law, as well, lex talionis referred to financial compensation, and not direct retaliation. However, a more ancient legal system – one that predates both Roman law, and even Jewish law – did indeed use this principle literally. In fact, this legal system phrases the law in a very similar way.

The Code of Hammurabi

In 1901, archaeologist Gustave Jéquier made a monumental discovery while excavating around the ancient Persian city of Susa. A massive stone stele with 44 columns of text written in the ancient Akkadian language. By the following year, the stele had been translated. It was a legal code, composed of 282 laws, dating back almost four thousand years to the reign of the Babylonian king Hammurabi (c. 1810-1750 BCE). The code begins with a brief legendary history of Babylon:

Stele of Hammurabi's Code, currently housed at the Louvre in Paris

Stele of Hammurabi’s Code, currently housed at the Louvre in Paris. The top of the stele depicts Hammurabi receiving the laws from his patron god, Marduk.

When Anu the Sublime, King of the Anunnaki, and Bel, the lord of Heaven and earth, who decreed the fate of the land, assigned to Marduk, the over-ruling son of Ea, god of righteousness, dominion over earthly man, and made him great among the Igigi, they called Babylon by his illustrious name, made it great on earth, and founded an everlasting kingdom in it, whose foundations are laid so solidly as those of heaven and earth; then Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak…

The text (which can be read in full here) then lists the laws of Hammurabi’s kingdom. It is amazing to see how many laws parallel those of this week’s parasha, among them laws of slavery, theft, and damages. Some are even expressed in similar phrases. Law #196: “If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.”

Who is Hammurabi?

Hammurabi’s code is perhaps the earliest known legal system. In fact, it is one of the oldest pieces of text ever discovered. Incredibly, archaeologists have also uncovered a multitude of tablets and writings from his reign, including as many as 55 of his own letters. And Hammurabi’s greatness goes far beyond these writings.

Mesopotamia at the time of Hammurabi

Mesopotamia at the time of Hammurabi

Though initially his reign was peaceful, Hammurabi was soon mired in various wars by the aggression of neighbouring city-states. Hammurabi came out on top, and by the end of his reign had unified all the city-states of Mesopotamia under the Babylonian banner. He transformed Babylon into a metropolis and temple-laden holy city, putting it on the map for eternity. Thousands of years later, Jews still refer to the Talmud as the Bavli, the Babylonian (due to its composition in formerly-Babylonian lands, and to distinguish it from the lesser-known Yerushalmi Talmud).

Of course, Babylon also made its way into the Torah. Before there is mention of any of our patriarchs, there is mention of the city of Babylon, with its Tower soaring to the Heavens, and drawing God’s wrath. And it appears that Hammurabi himself made it into the Holy Book.

While “Hammurabi” is an Anglicized name, the king’s name was actually pronounced Ammurapi, or Ammuraphi. In Genesis 14 we read: “And it came to pass in the days of Amraphel, king of Shinar…” Shinar is the Biblical name for Mesopotamia (likely stemming from shnei naar, the land between the two rivers, which is the same as the Greek Mesopotamia). Meanwhile, Rashi comments that Amraphel was none other than Nimrod, the great king of Babylon.

The tradition surrounding Nimrod is rich and varied. The Torah says he was a “great hunter before God” (Genesis 10:8) which some interpret to mean that he was a righteous, God-fearing man (Hammurabi’s stele also describes him as God-fearing). Others point out that his name Nimrod means “to rebel”, so he must have been the rebel who built the Tower of Babel in an attempt to conquer the Heavens.

Whatever the case, after the Great Dispersion and the confounding of languages that followed the Tower, Nimrod became Amraphel. His exit from the Torah comes at the hands of Abraham, who miraculously defeated him in the War of the Kings.

Though there is no way to say for sure that Hammurabi is Amraphel, or if he ever encountered Abraham, what we do know is that their lifespans certainly overlapped. The traditional Jewish dating for Abraham’s birth corresponds to the year 1812 BCE, while historical records suggest that Hammurabi was born around 1810 BCE.

Unfortunately, looking back so far into history is often futile, and presents a murky image at best. Perhaps future archaeological discoveries will clear up the past. Alas, for the time being we are left only to wonder about what could have been…

The Origins of Jerusalem and the Priesthood

“Isaac Blessing Jacob”, by Gustav Doré

This week’s Torah reading is Toldot, featuring the births and early lives of the twins Jacob and Esau. After twenty years of marriage, Isaac and Rebecca finally conceive. The pregnancy proves to be a strange one, though, with Rebecca’s restless womb feeling like a battlefield. Rebecca decides to seek the counsel of a prophet to figure out what’s going on. It is revealed that she is carrying twins, each of which will go on to found large nations and kingdoms that will always compete with one another. Even in the womb, they are already struggling for dominance. It is prophesized that ultimately the elder twin (Esau) will serve the younger twin (Jacob).

The Torah is unclear about who it was that made this prophecy. In the simplest sense, it is possible that Rebecca herself received the prophecy directly from God since she, too, was a prophetess like all the matriarchs. However, the accepted tradition (and the one cited by Rashi) is that she went to consult with Shem, the son of Noah.

Shem, or Melchizedek?

Depending on how one reads the verses, Shem must have lived for 600 or 602 years. (In the past, we’ve written of the seemingly impossible lifespans of the pre-Flood generations.) The traditional year for the Flood on the Hebrew calendar (where years are designated with an AM, anno mundi) is 1656 AM, approximately 2104 BCE. Shem was around 100 years old at this time (Genesis 11:10), which means that Shem lived roughly until 2156 AM. Abraham was born in 1948 AM, Isaac in 2048 AM, and Jacob in 2108 AM, so it is a very real possibility that Shem met all three patriarchs.

In the 14th chapter of Genesis, we read about Abraham’s war with the alliance of four kings, headed by Amraphel of Shinar. After defeating the kings, Abraham is greeted by Melchizedek, the king of Salem (Shalem), who is also described as being a priest (kohen). Rashi cites the midrash that Melchizedek is none other than Shem, the son of Noah. How did Shem become Melchizedek?

Back to the Tower of Babel

A few weeks ago we wrote of the Tower of Babel and how this Tower was very different from what people generally think. In the aftermath of the Tower, the people – once all living in a single city, with a single language – were scattered across the Earth, and their languages confounded. Not surprisingly, since their languages had totally changed, their names must have totally changed, too. After all, how could those scattered to, say, China, retain their old Semitic names from a life they no longer had any memory of, and with syllables they could no longer pronounce in their new tongue?

Indeed, Rashi tells us that Amraphel, the king of Shinar – leader of the alliance against Abraham – is the very same person as Nimrod – the king who previously tried to kill Abraham by throwing him into a fiery furnace! Before the Tower, the king was known as Nimrod (in fact, many consider him to be the one who spearheaded the Tower project). Now, after the confounding of languages, he was Amraphel of Shinar. And in the same way, Shem was now Melchizedek of Salem.

The First King of Jerusalem

The Torah tells us that following the Flood, Noah brought sacrificial offerings to God. The midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 30:6) fills in that it was actually Shem who facilitated the offerings. Upon exiting the Ark, Noah was attacked by a lion and seriously injured, preventing him from performing the sacrificial rites. Shem stepped in, becoming history’s first official priest. He held onto this role for several centuries. Knowing that Jerusalem is the spiritual centre of the world, and God’s chosen site for offerings, Shem settled there. He called the place Shalem, literally “wholeness” and “peace”, and soon became its king as well.

Following Abraham’s war, it is said that Shem, now known as Melchizedek, conferred the priesthood upon him. The priesthood was then passed down from father to son through the special birthright and blessing (as we read in this week’s portion). With the sin of the Golden Calf at Mt. Sinai, the firstborn of Israel collectively lost their rights to the priesthood, which was now transferred solely to the tribe of Levi, and more specifically, to the descendants of Aaron. To this day, Jews do the pidyon haben ceremony thirty days after the first male child is born, commemorating this transfer of priesthood from the firstborn to the descendants of Aaron.

Meanwhile, Abraham would later ascend Mt. Moriah in the territory of Salem to bind Isaac in the Akedah. Following this test, Abraham called the place Hashem Yireh, literally “where God is seen”. The Sages say that since the righteous Shem called the place Shalem, and the righteous Abraham called it Yireh, God did not want to choose one name over the other, and so, combined the two to make Yerushalaim, Jerusalem.

The Return of the Righteous Priest

How the life of Shem-Melchizedek came to an end appears to be a mystery. Some ancient Jewish texts put him in the same league as Elijah and Enoch, two people who are said to have never died, but rather ascended to the Heavens alive. The Talmud (Sukkah 52b) speaks of a “Righteous Priest” who comes at the End of Days, together with Elijah and the two Messiahs: Mashiach ben David, and Mashiach ben Yosef. The midrash identifies this Righteous Priest as Melchizedek. Together, they make up the “Four Craftsmen” prophesized by Zechariah that will finally usher in a new, peaceful world. May we merit to see it soon.

Three Powerful Lessons from Abraham

'Abraham and the Three Angels' by James Tissot

‘Abraham and the Three Angels’ by James Tissot

This week’s Torah reading is Vayera, which famously begins with Abraham hosting three angels, who go on to prophesy the birth of Isaac, and then to destroy the sinful Sodom and Gomorrah. In this parasha we get a much deeper look into Abraham’s character traits and personality. Of course, there is a great deal to be learned from the first patriarch. His legendary hospitality and kindness (stemming from his root in the mystical sefirah of Chessed, of which we wrote about last year) is already well-known. His empathy and concern for others, too, is often highlighted from this week’s reading where he negotiates with God to spare the people of Sodom. Yet there are several more lessons (among many others) we can draw from the great Abraham.

Dust and Ashes

In the midst of his conversation with God to spare the people of Sodom, Abraham meekly states anokhi afar v’efer, “I am dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). This alludes to the account of creation where God makes man afar min hadamah, from the “dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7), and after the Forbidden Fruit, curses man: “from the dust you came, and to the dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).

It also reminds of the words of the great sage Akavia ben Mehalalel in the Mishnah (Avot 3:1): “Reflect upon three things and you will not come to sin: Know from where you came, and where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgement and accounting. From where you came? From a putrid drop. Where you are going? To a place of dust, maggots and worms. And before whom you are destined to give a judgement and accounting? Before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.”

Rashi comments on Abraham’s words that were it not for God’s salvation, Abraham would have been turned to ashes by Nimrod’s flaming furnace, and to dust by the alliance of armies that warred against him (Genesis 14). Abraham thus addressed God in this humble manner, recognizing that he is in no position to argue against His creator, yet at the same time fulfilling his God-given mandate of being holy, and being like God, Who is ultimately compassionate and graceful. Of course, God comforts Abraham in telling him that had there been fifty righteous people in Sodom, He would not destroy it (or had there been forty-five people for that matter, or forty, or thirty, twenty, or even ten).

All of this is a great lesson in humility. As the Mishnah states, a person should never forget where they come from and where they are going; how short and futile life is; and where they really stand in the grand scheme of this vast universe. However, one should never be self-effacing, nor should a person forget that they are made in God’s image, with an infinite potential to grow, create, and improve their world.

One of the earliest Chassidic leaders, Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa (1765-1827), said it best: “A person should have two pockets in his coat. One should contain the Talmudic saying: ‘For my sake was the world created.’ In the second pocket he should keep the Torah verse: ‘I am but dust and ashes.’”

Fulfilled Prayers

Later on in the parasha we read what seems like a déjà vu, where the beautiful Sarah is once again abducted by a king, this time Avimelech of Gerar. As a result, Avimelech’s household is plagued by some sort of infertility, or according to others, a curse where all of their orifices were sealed, preventing both excretion and childbirth. The story concludes with Abraham praying for Avimelech and his household, and they are healed. The Torah specifically states that the women were once more able to deliver their babies (Genesis 20:17-18).

The very next verse starts by saying that God “remembered what He had said… and Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham…” Rashi comments on the juxtaposition of verses: since Abraham prayed for Avimelech’s home to be fruitful, so too was his own home made fruitful. The lesson: one who prays for the needs of another, while having the same need, will also have his or her need fulfilled. The key to successful prayer is not constantly begging for one’s own needs, but instead, to focus (sincerely, of course) on the wellbeing of others.

Alacrity

In the final major passage of the parasha we read of the Akedah, the “binding of Isaac”. God commands Abraham to do something that seems both immoral and illogical. To be fair, despite the fact that most people assume God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, the exact Hebrew wording never mentions killing or death, but simply asks Abraham to “elevate” Isaac. Nonetheless, Abraham himself believed God asked him to have Isaac sacrificed, perhaps in the spirit of the day when human sacrifice was common. We cannot imagine how difficult this must have been for Abraham, especially since Isaac was his long-awaited son.

God tells Abraham: “Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac…” (Genesis 22:2). Why the redundancy in wording? Couldn’t God just say “Please take your son” or “Please take Isaac”? Rashi answers by quoting a beautiful midrash: God initially said “Please take your son”. Abraham, knowing where this was probably going, said “I have two sons” (referring to Ishmael, his son from Hagar). God said “your only one”, since by this point Ishmael had been expelled, and it was already clear that Isaac would inherit the Covenant. Abraham replied that, nevertheless, they are both his “only sons” – Ishmael his only son through Hagar, and Isaac his only son through Sarah. So God said “whom you love”, and Abraham quickly replied that he loves both of them. Finally, God explicitly said “Isaac”. Rashi finishes by saying that God rewarded Abraham for each of these expressions, in lovingly trying to avoid the difficult test.

Despite this, the Torah says that Abraham “arose early in the morning” to fulfil God’s test. This is the third time where the exact phrasing is used, describing Abraham as arising early in the morning. It is from this that the tradition of Abraham instituting shacharit, the morning prayer, comes from. Abraham was an early bird, and a diligent man that got all of his work done promptly. This is another great lesson from the first of our forefathers.

Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas tells us in the Mishnah (Avot 3:10) that sleeping in in the morning is one of four things that guarantee a person will fail in this world (the others being drinking alcohol in the day, being childish, and spending time in places where ignorant people gather). How can one sleep in when there is so much to be done? So many goals to accomplish, and so many mitzvot to fulfil; so many opportunities to take advantage of, and so much wisdom to study; so many things to explore, so many people to help, and so many lives to change. To end with the words of Rabbi Tarfon (Avot 2:15): “The day is short, and the work is abundant, but the workers are lazy, although there is much reward, and the Master is pressing…”

The Soul Journey of Nadav and Avihu

This week, for all those outside of Israel, we read the parasha of Shemini. Due to the fact that the eighth day of Passover fell on Shabbat, and the eighth day is only observed in the diaspora, those in Israel already read Shemini last week. Peculiarly, for the next several weeks (until May 16), Jews in Israel and Jews outside of Israel will be reading different Torah portions!

The most well-known episode of parashat Shemini describes the deaths of two of Aaron’s four sons. The Torah states, “And Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his pan, and lit fires in them, and placed incense upon it, and they brought before Hashem a foreign fire, which He had not commanded them. And a fire went forth from before Hashem and consumed them, and they died before Hashem.” (Leviticus 10:1-2)

The plain meaning here is that the sons did something they weren’t supposed to, bringing a “foreign fire” that God did not ask for, and their deaths were a punishment. However, the text continues with Moses relaying a message to Aaron from God, Who said: “I will be sanctified through those who are near to Me.” Rashi, quoting a midrash, explains that Nadav and Avihu were so holy that they were even greater than Moses and Aaron, and God had sanctified Himself through them! This also helps to explain why Moses commanded the entire nation to mourn the loss of Nadav and Avihu (10:6), which wouldn’t have happened had they been sinners who were punished.

What is it that made them so holy? The Arizal suggests one incredible possibility.

Gate of Reincarnations

In the Arizal’s famous treatise Sha’ar HaGilgulim (Gate of Reincarnations), as written by his primary disciple Rabbi Chaim Vital, the pair of Nadav and Avihu are mentioned no less than 89 times! The Arizal teaches that these two were part of one soul; an exceedingly important soul that finds itself in just about every generation, with an endless array of spiritual sparks and fragments (Ch. 14). The soul originated in a part of Cain, the son of Adam, and was the only part of his soul that was purified (Ch. 27). Of course, it should be mentioned that essentially all souls are said to have originated in Adam, and indeed, the Arizal states that Nadav and Avihu’s came from the highest part of Adam’s soul (Ch. 31).

Nadav and Avihu were wholly devoted to spirituality, so much so that they even refused to get married (Vayikra Rabbah 20:10, though some say they refused marriage out of arrogance, not spirituality). The Talmudic sage Shimon Ben Azzai also refused to get married, due to his love for Torah, which he couldn’t imagine leaving even for the shortest amount of time. In reality, this is not the Torah’s ideal for spirituality, and it is far from praiseworthy. Ben Azzai himself admitted it wasn’t the right thing to do, and went so far as to describe one who refuses marriage as shedding blood and diminishing Godliness (Yevamot 63b). At the end, Ben Azzai also died in a Divine way, ascending his soul to the Heavens, never to return (Chagigah 14b). In fact, the Arizal makes an explicit connection between the sons of Aaron and the soul of Ben Azzai (Ch. 36).

The Golden Calf Connection

The Arizal concludes that Nadav and Avihu ultimately died as a spiritual rectification for the worship of the Golden Calf (Ch. 38). For this reason, the Torah says the entire nation mourned their deaths, recognizing that it was primarily the fault of the whole nation. Much of the fault lies with Aaron who, despite his good intentions, actually built the Golden Calf at the people’s behest (Exodus 32:2-4). Technically, he was the one who should have perished in the flames. The Arizal points out that it was actually his life’s major test.

Aaron was the reincarnation of Haran, the brother of Abraham (Ch. 33). For this reason, their names are almost identical, differing only by the addition of an aleph: Aaron (אהרן) and Haran (הרן). The Arizal cites the famous midrash which tells the story of how Abraham, due to his faith in a singular God, was thrown into the flames by the idolater Nimrod. It was at this point that God openly revealed Himself to Abraham for the first time, miraculously saving him from the flames.

Seeing his brother’s miraculous salvation, Haran, too, jumped into the flames, finally recognizing God at that instant. However, Haran was previously an idol worshipper, and did not have the merit to be saved like Abraham. Thus, he returned as Aaron, the noble and righteous High Priest, with the main test and rectification of resisting idolatry to make up for the sins of his past life. Aaron should not have built the Golden Calf, even if it meant risking his life (as did his fellow Hur, who paid the ultimate price for it). Unfortunately, Aaron succumbed and built the idol. It was he who should have suffered the consequences.

In a great personal sacrifice, Aaron’s holy sons Nadav and Avihu took the sin upon themselves, hoping to protect their dear father, whose intentions were truly pure. In place of Aaron, they were swallowed up by the flames – just like Haran was in a past life – repairing the spiritual damage. This is why the Torah describes their offering as a “foreign fire”, one that God had not commanded. This offering was not theirs to make, but they took it upon themselves anyway. In the process, the Arizal tells us that they purified the entire nation from the stain of the Golden Calf incident (Ch. 38). And so, the Torah says God was “‘sanctified through those near” to Him – Nadav and Avihu.

And this is why Nadav and Avihu were so holy.