By: Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson
Torah Reading: Leviticus 16:1-20:27
Haftarah Reading: Amos 9:7-15
Last week, the Torah recounted the grisly story of the sudden death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu. It seems that the consecration of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) had barely been completed when these two kohanim decided to violate the established rules for the service of God and instead to willfully impose their own offering and their own mode of offering it. In response to their “alien fire”, God engulfs the two men in a fire from heaven, instantly striking both down.
What makes this story particularly gripping is that it comes at what ought to be the high point of their father’s life. Aaron had served God and the Jewish people by working as Moses’ mouthpiece before Pharaoh. In the wilderness, he was assigned the role of offering all sacrifices and running the sacrificial worship in the Mishkan, and his offspring were promises similar roles in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The crown of the priesthood was his and his childrens’ forever, and the celebration of that signal honor was to occur after the construction and dedication of the Mishkan in the wilderness.
With great pomp and solemnity, before the eyes of the entire people, Aaron and his sons were to perform sacrifices to atone for themselves and the priestly clan, and then to offer similar offerings on behalf of the entire people.
At that cherished moment, with Moses and the house of Israel gazing in awe, Aaron’s two sons performed their act of rebellion, and before the entire gathering, an enraged God executed both men.
After the death of his sons, the Torah relates that Aaron silently accepted God’s judgment as just, returning to perform his sacrificial duties with due deference to the solemn verdict against his children.
While the Torah portion highlights a world of men and public ritual, of fathers and sons and rebellion and punishment, completely omitted from the account is one key player: Aaron’s wife and the mother of Nadav and Avihu.
What of Elisheva bat Aminadav? Did she also accept God’s punishment in mute acceptance and in humble resignation? Was she so taken by her family’s prestige that she accepted their fate as the consequence of social prominence? Did she rejoice in her social import and disregard the deaths of her boys?
Where the Torah is silent, the Midrash fills in the gap. Midrash Va-Yikra Rabbah tells us that “Elisheva bat Aminadav…witnessed 5 crowns in one day: her brother-in-law [Moses] was like a king, her brother [Nahshon] was like a prince, her husband was a Kohen Gadol (High Priest), her 2 sons were both Deputy High Priests, and Pinhas, her grandson, was a kohen appointed for war.”
This was a woman who had risen as high as any female could aspire in a patriarchal age: every one of her male relatives had achieved high office and weighty responsibility; each one was respected and revered. Surely, such a woman would be unassailably happy with her status. Yet, the Midrash tells us “[She] did not enjoy happiness in the world… When her sons entered to offer incense and were burnt, her joy was changed to mourning.”
Perhaps Elisheva’s response is no different than any other human being, but I can’t help thinking that her training as a woman helped shape her priorities: titles, social station, and prestige may be nice, but the only real significance in the world is the love, health, and well-being of those we love. Elisheva knew that the high station of her family meant nothing now that her children were dead. She knew that even this highest honor of the Torah was a shallow ghost, almost a mockery in the face of her grief.
Perhaps that is why the Torah passes over her in silence, behind a veil. Grief such as hers, and a sense of priorities that values ones children over one’s status has little place in public annals or professional accounts (and Leviticus is very much both of those things). Wisely, then, the Torah left her out of a public tale, and equally wisely, the rabbinic sages of the Midrash lifted the veil so we could gain insight from this wise woman, our ancestor Elisheva.
Just as Aaron, her husband, exemplifies the wisdom of accepting what we cannot change, Elisheva demonstrates the priority of people over position and relationships over status. Her unwillingness to be happy after the death of her sons is an act of emotional loyalty, and a summons for her descendants—male and female—to emulate her passionate and stubborn loyalty for each of our children and for the family of humanity.