Tags: Aaron's sons, Leviticus, Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, ordination, prophets and priests, torah portion
The Israelites complete the tent that will serve as a portable temple at the end of the book of Exodus/Shemot. Moses consecrates the altar and the priests who will perform all the required rituals in this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, the second portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.
Moses assembles the whole community outside the entrance of the new Tent of Meeting. In front of everyone he washes his brother Aaron and Aaron’s four sons, then dresses them in the white, gold, red, purple, and blue ritual garments described in the book of Exodus/Shemot.1
The ceremony continues with the ritual slaughter of a bull and three rams, offerings of animal parts and three kinds of flat cakes, and the application of anointing oil and blood from the slaughtered animals in various locations and combinations. (See my post Tzav: Horns, Ears, Thumbs, and Toes.) After the gorgeous new ceremonial garments are spotted all over with oil and blood they are holy—dedicated to God. So are Aaron and his sons, but they are not yet priests.
Moses leaves them with a supply of boiled meat (from the second ram) and leftover grain products (from the grain offering), and gives them strict instructions:
You must not leave the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days, until the day of melot the days of your milu-im; because in seven days yemallei your yad. (Leviticus/Vayikra 8:33)
melot (מְלֺאת) = filling up, being full, fulfilling, completing. (A form of the verb mala, מָלַא = filled, was full.)
milu-im (מִילֻּאִים) = ordination; setting for a jewel to fill. (From the root mala.)
yemallei (יְמַלֵּא) = it will fill up. (Another form of the verb mala.)
yad (יַד) = hand; power, ability.
mala yad (מָלַא יַד) = Literally: filled the hand. Idiomatically: ordained.2
According to God’s instructions to Moses in the book of Exodus, one part of the ritual will be repeated each day during this seven-day period: the slaughter of a bull and consecration of the altar with its blood.3 But Aaron and his sons will simply sit in the tent entrance in their spattered garments, gradually eating their portions of the meat and grain offerings that they had shared with God.
God commanded to do what was done today, to atone for you. And you must sit at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting day and night for seven days, and you must watch over the watch of God, so you will not die; for so I was commanded. (Leviticus 8:34-35)
The Torah does not say whether the long ritual served as a general atonement and spiritual purification, or whether it atones for Aaron’s sin of making the golden calf back in the book of Exodus.4
Nor does it say what Aaron and his sons must watch over or guard for seven days. Many commentators have written that they spend the seven days meditating on the rules of holiness and ritual purity for serving God.5
Another viewpoint is that they are mourning, because they have a premonition that at least one of them will die on the eighth day, when they first serve God as official priests.6 But when Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, do die on the eighth day, in next week’s Torah portion, it comes as a shock to everyone.
The Torah also quotes Moses as telling Aaron and his sons that they must not leave the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days because “it will fill up (yemallei) your ability (yad)”. Maybe it takes seven days in the entrance to God’s dwelling-place to fill up with sufficient holy awe to be able to conduct the business of holiness.
What strikes me is that Aaron and his sons are neither born nor trained to be priests. They get their new positions without any previous job experience.
Up to this point, Aaron has not been the sort of man who wears a gold medallion on his forehead saying “Holy to God”. It’s clear in the book of Exodus that God only calls Aaron in because Moses makes so many objections to the job God gives him at the burning bush.7 To his credit, Aaron greets his long-lost brother without jealousy, and willingly serves as Moses’ sidekick. When the Israelites are attacked by Amalek on the way to Mount Sinai, Aaron literally supports Moses’ arm and helps him save the day.8 But when Moses climbs Mount Sinai and does not return for 40 days, and the people panic and ask for idols, Aaron makes the golden calf.
Now Aaron is promoted from Moses’ unreliable assistant to High Priest. Aaron will officiate over the ritual offerings in the sanctuary. Aaron will light the menorah. Aaron will be in charge of God’s dwelling place.
Aaron’s four sons are also getting major promotions. They have not done anything of distinction, though they would be treated with the respect simply because they are Aaron’s sons.9 Now they are being ordained as priests. They will be the only people besides Moses and Aaron and Moses who are allowed to enter the Tent of Meeting, the only people allowed to handle the holiest objects inside it. Only they will turn the offerings of their people into smoke that ascends to God.
For seven days Aaron and his sons sit inside the sanctuary, in the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Perhaps they face out, gazing at the bronze altar and the wash-basin in the sunlit courtyard. Perhaps they face in, gazing at the golden menorah, incense altar, and bread table under the tent roof, not to mention the curtain screening off the ark itself. For seven days they sit there, without distractions, realizing they will spend the rest of their lives dedicated to holy service.
I doubt they are doing anticipatory mourning for the coming deaths of Nadav and Avihu. But they may be mourning for their old way of life, which has ended forever. At the end of seven days, they will be the servants of God’s dwelling-place, who must act as God’s representatives every waking minute.
Their new lives as priests are imposed on them. They do not apply for the job. They do not even hear God call them, the way prophets in the Hebrew Bible are called into service. Moses simply tells them what God told him do. It might seem like a great honor to them, or it might seem as arbitrary as an accident.
At least they are granted seven days to sit at the entrance of their new lives, experiencing the grief, fear, awe, and whatever else comes along, letting the transformation sink in.
We don’t have a Moses to set aside seven days for us when we face a sudden major change in life. But we have the example in this week’s Torah portion. May everyone who can take time on the threshold between an old life and a new one receive the inspiration to sit and reflect. And whenever our lives change, may God fill up our ability to meet the new challenge.
(An earlier version of this essay was posted in March 2010.)
1 Exodus 28:1-43, 39:1-31. See my post Tetzavveh: The Clothes Make the Man.
2 The source of this idiom is not known, but it may be related to the elevation offering, the tenufah (תְּנוּפָה), in which priests lay the meat or grain cakes to be offered on their palms and either hold them out, raise them, or wave them toward God before burning them. A tenufah was part of the ordination ceremony for Aaron and his sons (Leviticus 8:26-28).
3 Exodus 29:35-38.
4 Exodus 32:1-8, 21-25. See my post Ki Tissa: Out Came this Calf!
5 e.g. 13th-century rabbi Moses ben Nachman (a.k.a. Ramban, Nachmanides), paraphrased in Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Vayikra, trans. by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, 1992, p. 71; 19th-century rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra, Part 1, trans. by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002, p. 277.
6 Midrash Tanchuma, a collection of commentary from the 5th through 8th centuries C.E., paraphrased in Munk, p. 72. Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, do die on the eighth day, consumed by a fire from God (Leviticus 10:1-2); and Moses forbids Aaron and his two surviving sons to engage in mourning for them (Leviticus 10:6-7). The seven days sitting at the tent entrance are compared to the initial seven-day mourning period of shivah, but “sitting shivah” is a later Jewish custom.
7 Exodus 4:10-17.
8 Exodus 17:8-13. See my post Beshallach: Hands Up.
9 Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, are treated as if they are elders when they walk partway up Mount Sinai with the 70 regular elders, Moses, and Aaron to behold a vision of God’s feet (Exodus 24:1, 9-11).