Why do Parshiot Tazria/Metzora interrupt the logical flow from Parshat Shmini to Parshat Acharei Mot?
In case this sounds a bit complicated, don't worry, we'll begin this week's shiur by first explaining this question. Then we'll use its answer to help us arrive at a more comprehensive understanding of this section of Sefer Vayikra.
Recall that the first half of Parshat Shmini included the story of tragic death of Aharon's two sons - Nadav and Avihu (see 10:1-9). Now, considering that Parshat Acharei Mot opens with God's commandment to Moshe and Aharon in the aftermath of that event [see 16:1 - "And God spoke to Moshe and Aharon after the death of the two sons of Aharon..."], it would have been more logical for the Torah to include this commandment in Parshat Shmini - immediately after the story of their death!
However, instead of this 'logical order,' Sefer Vayikra records some five chapters (11-15) of various laws in between. In this week's shiur, we will attempt to understand why.
To do so, Part One will discuss why Nadav and Avihu were punished and the relationship of these laws to that story. In Part Two we outline this set of laws found in the interim in order to better appreciate their detail.
[See Rashi, Ramban, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Chizkuni, etc.]
It is beyond the scope of this week's shiur to explain the beauty of each "pirush" [note how each commentary is so convincing that it is truly hard to choose between them]. However, we will simply focus on a very general approach [what we like to call 'simple pshat'] which will help us understand how this incident relates to the theme of Sefer Vayikra and the progression of its parshiot.
Our approach is be based on the Torah's emphasis (and repetition) of the phrase: "ka'asher tzivah Hashem" [as God has commanded] not only in the pasuk that describes Nadav and Avihu's sin (see 10:1), but also at almost every step in the Torah's description of the building of the Mishkan, the seven day "miluim" ceremony, and the Yom HaShmini dedication ceremony.
Let's begin by noting this key phrase in Moshe Rabbeinu's opening explanation of the special korbanot on Yom HaShmini:
"And Moshe said: Zeh HaDavar - This is what God has commanded that you do [in order] that His kavod [Glory] can appear upon you [once again]..." (9:6; see also 9:1-5)Carefully note how Moshe declares this statement in front of the entire "eydah" [congregation] that has gathered to watch this ceremony. [See 9:5! Note also in 9:3-4 that Moshe explains to the people that these korbanot will 'bring back' the Sh'china.]
But this was not the first time that Moshe had made such a declaration. Seven days earlier, as the seven day "miluim" ceremony was about to begin, Moshe had made an almost identical statement to Bnei Yisrael:
"And Moshe said to the entire eydah [gathered at the Ohel Moed - 8:3] - Zeh HaDavar - This is what God has commanded to do..." (8:5)Why must Moshe, prior to offering these special korbanot, first explain the details of these procedures to the entire congregation who have gathered to watch?
Furthermore, throughout every step of both the seven day miluim and the Yom HaShmini korbanot, the Torah emphasizes over and over again this very same phrase "ka'asher tzivah Hashem et Moshe"!
To verify this, simply review chapter 8 [the miluim], noting 8:4,5,9,13,17,21,29 and especially the final pasuk:
"And Aharon and his sons did all the things ["ha'dvarim"] - asher tzivah Hashem - as God had commanded Moshe!" (8:36)Likewise, review chapter 9 [the Yom HaShmini korbanot], noting 9:5,6,7,10,21! Note how the Torah concludes each stage of this special ceremony with this same phrase.
Finally, recall from Parshat Vayakhel/Pekudei that when Bnei Yisrael build the Mishkan we find almost the exact same pattern! Moshe's opening command to Bnei Yisrael is (again) almost identical:
"And Moshe said to the entire congregation of Israel [eydah] Zeh HaDavar asher tzivah Hashem - This is what God has commanded saying: Take a donation... " (35:4, see also 35:1)And when the Torah describes how Bnei Yisrael complete the Mishkan and assemble all of its parts, this same phrase "ka'asher tzivah Hashem et Moshe" - is repeated some twenty times, (again) at the conclusion of each and every stage [coinciding with the end of each 'parshia'].
[See not only 35:29, 36:1, and 36:5 but also 39:1,5,7,21,26,29,31,32,42,43 and 40:16,19,21,23,25,27,29,32!]
In summary, the Torah goes out of its way to inform us that Moshe gathers the entire eydah together to explain the precise details of what they must follow ["zeh ha'davar asher tzivah Hashem..."] before each and every one of the three key events the Mishkan, i.e. before:
Nadav and Avihu's Punishment
With this background, we can better understand why Nadav and Avihu are punished on Yom HaShmini when they decide (on their own) to offer k'toret. Note the Torah's description of their sin:
"And Nadav and Avihu each took their firepan, put in it fire and added k'toret, and they brought an alien fire in front of God which He had not commanded them ['asher lo tzivah']."Their fire is considered "aish zarah" [alien] simply because God 'did not command them' to offer it. Nadav and Avihu may have had the purest intentions, but they made one critical mistake - they did not act according to the precise protocol which God had prescribed for that day. Considering that the entire eydah gathered at the Ohel Mo'ed recognize that Nadav and Avihu have strayed from protocol, they must be punished, for the lesson of that day was exactly this point - that in the Mishkan man must meticulously follow every detail of God's command.
[Note that this interpretation does not negate any of the other opinions which suggest that Nadav and Avihu had done something else wrong [such as drinking or disrespect of Moshe, etc.]. It simply allows us to understand the severity their punishment even if they had done nothing 'wrong' at all (other than doing something which God had not commanded).]
From a thematic perspective, their punishment under these circumstances is quite understandable. Recall the theological dilemma created by a Mishkan - a physical representation (or symbol) of a transcendental God. Once a physical object is used to represent God, the danger exists that man may treat that object [and then possibly another object] as a god itself. On the other hand, without a physical representation of any sort, it is very difficult for man to relate to God at all. Therefore, God allows a Mishkan - a symbol of His Presence - but at the same time, He must emphasize that He can only be worshiped according to the precise manner "as God had commanded Moshe."
[See also Devarim 4:9-24 for the Torah's discussion of a similar fear that man may choose his own object to represent God [a "tavnit..."; compare Shmot 25:8-9, "v'akmal".]
The Problem of 'Good Intentions'
This specific problem of 'following God's command' in relation to the Mishkan takes on extra meaning on Yom HaShmini.
Recall our explanation of Aharon's sincere intentions at the incident of Chet Ha'Egel, i.e. he wanted to provide Bnei Yisrael with a physical symbol of God which they could worship. [See previous shiur on Ki-Tisa.] Despite Aharon's good intentions, his actions led to a disaster, and, because of Chet Ha'Egel, K'vod Hashem [God's Glory / Sh'china]) which had appeared to Bnei Yisrael at Har Sinai (see Shmot 24:17) was taken away (see 33:1-7).
Due to Moshe's intervention, God finally allows His Sh'china to return to the Mishkan which Bnei Yisrael build. Now, on the very day of its dedication, just as the Sh'china is about to return to the Mishkan (see 9:23-24), Nadav and Avihu make a 'mistake' very similar to Aharon's original error at Chet Ha'Egel.
[Not only can this explain why they are so severely punished, it may also help us understand their father's reaction of: "va'yidom Aharon" (and Aharon stood silent) - see 10:3).]
Finally, this interpretation can help us understand Moshe's statement to Aharon: "This is what God had spoken - b'krovai akadeish..." (see 10:3). Recall the parallel, which we have discussed many times, between Har Sinai and the Mishkan. At Har Sinai, Bnei Yisrael and the Kohanim were forewarned:
"And God told Moshe: Go down and warn the people that they must not break through [the barrier surrounding] Har Sinai, lest they gaze at Hashem and perish. The Kohanim also, who come near Hashem, must sanctify themselves ('yitkadashu' - compare 'b'krovei akadeish' - 10:3), lest God punish them." (Shmot 19:21)As this inaugural ceremony parallels the events of Har Sinai, God's original warning concerning approaching Har Sinai, even for the Kohanim, now applies to the Mishkan as well. Therefore, extra caution is necessary, no matter how good one's intentions may be. [See also Chizkuni on 10:3!]
Back to Sefer Vayikra
Now we can return to our original question. In Sefer Vayikra, the sin of Nadav and Avihu introduces an entire set of laws that discuss improper entry into the Mishkan. After this tragic event, the sefer discusses the various laws of "tumah v'tahara," which regulate who is permitted and who is forbidden to enter the Mishkan (i.e. chapters 11-15). Only afterward does Sefer Vayikra return (in chapter 16) to God's command to Aharon concerning how to enter the Mikdash properly on Yom Kippur.
In Part Two, we discuss the content of this special unit of mitzvot from chapter 11-15.