By Rabbi David Hartley Mark
I am Aaron, brother of Moses. I am honored to be Kohen Gadol, the High Priest of Israel. Do not believe that my job or my life are easy. On the long-past Coronation Day of the Mishkan, God’s Sanctuary among His people, I recall how the cattle for sacrifice, the incense and grain-offerings were all made ready.
The people were singing, praying, and cheering, “The offerings! Let the priests and Levites bring them forth!”
I met with my eldest sons—may their memories be for a blessing, O Holy One!—Nadav and Avihu. I was so proud of them: I had worked with them on the prayers and procedures for making the offerings, so that they would not make a mistake. I kissed and hugged them; who knew it would be for the last time? They took their incense-burners from the Levites, and went to face the people….
But alas! Something went wrong, and the Lord God struck them with His lightning. They died before my eyes. Can you imagine, Stranger, what that feels like? I was struck dumb: when my dear wife, Elisheva, asked me what had happened to her boys, I could not respond. My brother Moses—cold-blooded Moses, whose own sons, Gershom and Eliezer, have vanished forever—told her of their deaths.
Elisheva was devastated. She moved in with my sister, Miriam. I have not seen or spoken with my wife in weeks.
And I, too, was silent for weeks, numbly going about my business, teaching my two younger boys, Eleazar and Itamar, what to do, and how to perform the rituals. But it was not the same; how could it be? My heart is broken, for loss of my sons.
My Lord God is a demanding God, indeed, but why did He have to take my boys? DO YOU HEAR ME, GOD? What is Your answer?
Only silence: nothing but more “thou-shalt-nots,” forbidding me to enter within the curtain of the Holy of Holies, except on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. And that I should wear plain linen garments when offering a bull for a sin-purification offering, and a ram for a burnt offering. Why so? To show that I, despite being High Priest, am merely a human being and imperfect. I aspire to holiness—but this is so difficult, O God, when I feel so distant from You! (Lev. 16:2-5)
What other ceremony does God command me? Next comes the Sacrificial Goat, and the Scapegoat of Azazel. The first will be sacrificed to God. The other will be sent into the desert, and eventually pushed over a cliff to its death, a sacrifice to a wilderness-demon called Azazel. I will have placed my hands upon its head, and transferred to it all of Israel’s sins.
I go about my duties mechanically, without thinking about how these innocent creatures are suffering on behalf of us sinful human beings. I remember the Sacrifice of Isaac, when an angel came at the last minute, and ordered Abraham to spare the life of his hapless son. I wonder why God did not relent, and spare the lives of my two boys. I wish there were some other way to worship this mysterious Desert God, than by killing these beasts. And who is Azazel, anyway? Perhaps all this cattle-slaughter comes from our being a shepherding people. When the Lord God brings us into the Land of Israel, we will become farmers, I assume, and so will cease to make so many cattle offerings….
Dear God! Is it Your will that we forever expiate our sins by transferring them to the heads or bodies of these cattle, and not accept the guilt upon ourselves? Please, God, send me words, or a sign, that You desire repentance, and not the smoke of bulls and calves alone.
“Finally, the Lord spoke: You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:1-2).