The story of the death of Aharon’s two sons during the joyous celebration of the Chanukat HaMishkan, of which we read in this week’s parsha, is one of the most troubling and puzzling stories in the Torah. Similarly, the haftarah’s story of the death of Avinadav’s son, Uza, in the midst of celebrating the relocation of the Holy Ark to Yerushalayim, a story that begins the haftarah, is equally troubling and puzzling. In both stories, the punished individuals were rejoicing with the people, celebrating a great spiritual moment. In both stories the sons seemed to have had the best intentions of serving Hashem and enhancing that holy moment. As a result, we are left wondering what exactly was the sin committed by the children of these holy men that earned them Gpd’s ultimate punishment. Although there have been many approaches attempting to unravel the mystery, I would like to focus on two approaches that, I believe, will help us better understand these events and will leave us with a lesson to apply to our own lives.
Common to both stories is the misguided attempt of perhaps well-meaning individuals to serve Hashem as they saw fit, but in doing so ignored God’s wishes. Aharon’s sons decided on their own to offer the ketoret when they were not bidden to do so. The entire ritual of that holy day was detailed beforehand and every rite that was to be followed was one that had been commanded to Moshe. Hence, the Torah refers to their offering as an “esh zara,” an “alien fire,” unacceptable to God, especially on the day when the formal laws of the worship of Hashem were to be set in motion.
The sin of Uza we read of in the haftarah is even more difficult to understand, and yet it too reflects a certain cavalier attitude to serving God. The Holy Ark rested upon a cart pulled by two oxen, a custom unknown in Israel (for the Ark was always carried upon the shoulders of the Levi’im as we learn in Bamidbar 7: 9-“Bakatef Yisa’u”) but practiced by the Philistines when they transported the Aron (see Shmuel A 6:11). When the oxen stumbled, Uza grabbed hold of the Ark itself in an attempt to steady it and prevent it from falling. Although a seemingly innocent act, it was a trespass of the most holy of things. Rather than steady the animals, rather than seize the cart, rather than hold on to the poles that were there for precisely that purpose, Uza shows an improper familiarity with the Holy Ark by grabbing hold of this sanctified appurtenance from whose adorning k’ruvim God’s voice was heard by Moshe. I recall the words of Chief Rabbi Dr. J. Hertz who explained homiletically (so no one should take offense) that when people might slip and fail to uphold the holy Torah, the job of her teachers and supporters is to strengthen those who slip and might need inspiration and explanation—but never to put our hands on the eternal Torah and “touch” it or change it in order to make it more “palatable” to the people.
For thousands of years we have borne the yoke of Torah and successfully passed down its morality to the next generation. There may be different ways to teach and inspire different generations but never have we—or should we—change our Holy Torah to fit the preferences or changing attitudes of each different generation.
Torah tziva lanu Moshe morasha kehillat Yaakov—the Torah is a “morasha,” a “heritage” to all of our nation. Our job is to keep it alive and pass it down to the future in the exact same state that we received it. Unchanged, undefiled and, therefore, eternal.
By Rabbi Neil N. Winkler
Rabbi Neil Winkler is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Young Israel of Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.