Tread Not Too Far, Yet Not Too Close
What we can learn from the death of Aaron's sons--the only narrative amidst the litany of laws in Leviticus
The Book of Leviticus, from which this week's Torah portion,Aharei Mot,
is taken, was dubbed quite appropriately by the rabbis "The Priest's Manual," which mirrors its (Greek-derived) English name, Leviticus ("Of the Levites," one of the priestly classes). For it is, essentially, a book of laws mostly pertaining to the elaborate sacrificial system organized and carried out by the priests.
Despite its predominantly legal nature (from which nearly half of Judaism's 613 commandments and the same proportion of the Talmud are said to be based), the laws are embedded in a literary frame that imbues it with a tightly woven thematic cohesion, even geometric composition.
The name of the portion alone, Aharei Mot,--literally, "After the Death"--points to the sole literary "plot" found in the Book of Leviticus, a narrative that quite fittingly involves the inaugural priestly family of Aaron (Moses' brother). Otherwise, the story verges on the mysterious. In Chapter 10, two of Aaron's four sons, in their role as priests, innocently make an offering to God and are instantly struck dead. At the time, the Torah implicitly suggests that their "sin" for which they were so strenuously punished was that they offered an alien fire, "which [the Lord] commanded them not."
As the only narrative in a book devoted to lists of commandments and technical descriptions of rituals--including such details as where to sprinkle the blood of a sacrifice--the shocking story of Aaron's two well-intentioned and yet ill-fated sons, Nadab and Abihu, seems misplaced. The "retelling" of the story or allusion to it in this week's portion is only slightly more satisfying.