The day that was otherwise the most joyous occasion our nation has ever known quickly turned into a day of sorrow and anguish. The Mishkan – the special Sanctuary built by Beneh Yisraelat Mount Sinai – was finally completed and formally inaugurated with the offering of special sacrifices. A heavenly fire descended to consume the sacrifices on the altar, signifying to the people that Gd had come to reside among them. Despite the grave sin of the golden calf, the people nevertheless proved themselves worthy of the Almighty’s presence among them, and they all shouted and cried in joy.
But those tears quickly turned to tears of grief when another heavenly fire descended – this time, to kill two righteous sons of their beloved kohen gadol, Aharon.
The story of this emotional roller coaster is told in Parashat Shemini, where we read that Nadav and Avihu – Aharon’s two older sons – decided to bring an incense offering on that day. Their intentions were, without question, pure and sincere, but they were nevertheless in violation of the strict laws governing the service in the Mishkan. Different opinions exist as to the precise nature of their mistake, but regardless, they were severely punished for their misguided attempt to draw close to Gd, and the nation’s greatest moment of joy was instantly transformed into a day of mourning.
The Hafetz Haim, in his famous halachic work Mishnah Berurah(621), cites earlier sources establishing that it is proper to reflect upon this tragedy on Yom Kippur. As part of our effort to repent for our misdeeds and beg Gd for forgiveness, we should contemplate the untimely death of Aharon’s two sons, to the point where we shed tears over this calamity. Indeed, our community has the custom to recite a special hymn about the loss of Nadav and Avihu as part of our Yom Kippur prayer service.
The obvious question arises, what connection is there between our observance of Yom Kippur and this tragedy? Why should we be thinking about Nadav and Avihu as part of our efforts to repent, and how is it possible for us to cry over the death of two men several millennia ago?
“Painting” Sin as Morality
We can answer this question based on a teaching of the legendary founder of the Hassidic movement, the Ba’al Shem Tov (1700-1760), alerting us to one of the great challenges of living a life of genuine religious devotion.
The Gemara in Masechet Sukkah tells of several things that are going to happen at the time of Mashiah’s arrival and the final redemption. One event mentioned by the Gemara is the public “execution” of the yetzer hara – the evil inclination. At that time, Gd will “slaughter” the evil inclination, marking the permanent eradication of human frailty and vice, ushering in our long-awaited state of eternal redemption.
The Ba’al Shem Tov asked a simple question. What did the yetzer hara do wrong? Gd specifically created mankind with certain sinful tendencies in order to give us the opportunity to struggle and triumph, and thereby earn great reward. From a religious standpoint, there is no meaning to life without challenges to overcome, without the possibility to do evil and the lifelong effort to choose virtue instead. The yetzer haradoes – and always has done, since the creation of man – precisely what it is meant to do: lure people to sin. Why will it deserve execution at the time of the final redemption?
The Ba’al Shem Tov answered that the yetzer hara is guilty because it does not play by the rules. It was authorized to lure people to sin, but not to deceive us.
An example of the yetzer hara’s foul play is the very first sin ever committed. When the snake – the emissary of the yetzer hara in this story – approached Havah in an attempt to lead her to sin, the snake told Havah that eating the forbidden fruit would make her “like Gd” (“Vihyitem k’Elokim” – Beresheet 3:5). The snake’s strategy was not to tempt Havah by showing her the enjoyment she would experience by eating the forbidden fruit. Instead, it resorted to an ideological argument, convincing her that this is the “Gdly” thing to do. It depicted the sin as something noble and virtuous.
This is not fair. The yetzer hara’s job is to tempt us to sin, so that we can resist temptation and earn reward for complying with Gd’s commands. But the yetzer hara goes beyond its mandate, so-to-speak, and tries to deceive us by making sins look like mitzvot and making mitzvot look like sins. For this it deserves to be killed.
The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that this concept is alluded to by the Gemara in Masechet Shabbat. The Gemara there raises the question, “Shohet mishum mai mehayev” – which prohibition does one violate if he slaughters an animal on Shabbat? The commonly accepted view is that slaughtering is forbidden on Shabbat because taking an animal’s life is prohibited on this day. Another view, however, surprisingly states that slaughtering is forbidden because of “tzove’a” – the prohibition against dyeing on Shabbat, as slaughtering has the effect of “dyeing” the animal’s skin with its blood. The Ba’al Shem Tov interpreted this remark on a deeper level, explaining that the Gemara speaks of the yetzer hara, the “slaughterer” that ensnares people and causes their downfall. Why, the Gemara asks, is the yetzer haraheld in contempt for doing its work of posing religious challenges? The answer is that it is guilty because of “tzove’a” – for “painting” bad as good. The yetzer hara will be eliminated because it overstepped its bounds, because instead of simply luring us to sin, it tricks us, painting vice as virtue and virtue as vice.
Entrapping the Righteous
What makes this sinister strategy of the yetzer hara so frightening is that it makes everyone vulnerable.
No matter how strong a person’s conviction is, no matter how passionately he is committed to doing the right thing and fulfilling Gd’s wishes, he is susceptible to the yetzer hara’s trap. Firm conviction and passionate commitment helps a person withstand temptation, but it does not necessarily help a person distinguish between right and wrong. Even somebody firmly devoted to Torah can end up committing grave sins if he misidentifies sin as virtue.
Indeed, we find several examples of righteous figures who fell into this fiendish trip of the yetzer hara. Yosef’s brothers were all righteous men, yet they did something unthinkable – plotting to kill their brother and then selling him as a slave. How did this happen? These great tzadikim did not suddenly become villains. They were far, far above petty jealousy, and certainly were not led to this sin because of any sort of ingrained cruelty or aggression. We could not possibly imagine any righteous person acting this way – certainly not Yaakov’s righteous sons. But this sin was the result of the brothers’ mistakenly thinking that eliminating Yosef was the just and proper thing to do. The yetzer haraconvinced them that the future of their family, and thus the future of Am Yisrael, required them to get rid of their brother. They committed this act not due to temptation, but due to the yetzer hara’s “painting’ this act as an act of piety. Even righteous men are capable of committing a grievous sin if the sin assumes the appearance of a mitzvah. And this is truly frightening.
On this basis, we might explain the story told in the Gemara of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakai’s final moments of life. His students were assembled around his deathbed, and they noticed that he was crying. When asked about his cries, the great sage said that he wept in fear. He explained that he had two roads ahead of him – one leading to Gan Eden, and the other to Gehinam– and he did not know along which road he would be led. Rabban Yohanan was the leading sage of his generation, the rabbi who is credited with rebuilding Torah life after the fall of the Second Temple. Nevertheless, he was afraid that he would be led along the wrong road. He knew he never succumbed to temptation, but he feared that he may have followed the wrong path, that the yetzer haramay have switched the road signs, sending him along the road to sin by marking it as the road to piety.
This is a reason for all of us to worry and cry. Most of us can pride ourselves on our commitment to Torah and mitzvot. Even if we occasionally stumble and succumb to temptation, we regret our actions and work to improve ourselves – which is exactly what we are supposed to do. But what’s frightening is the possibility that what we consider good is actually bad, and what we consider bad is actually bad. We all try to do the right thing, but what if the right thing really isn’t right? What if we are being fooled? If Yosef’s brothers could mistake selling Yosef for a mitzvah, then aren’t we, too, vulnerable to the yetzer hara’s trap?
This perhaps explains why we reflect upon the story of Nadav and Avihu on Yom Kippur. Over the course of Yom Kippur, we confess our sins several times. But there are also sins that we cannot confess, because we do not recognize them as sins. These are the sins which we mistake for good deeds. These are the sins which resemble Nadav and Avihu’s misguided attempt to serve Gd in the Mishkan – the things we do because we think they are noble, but are in truth sinful. On Yom Kippur, we are to cry in fear upon contemplating this frightening prospect – that we are being led astray by the yetzer hara’s cruel trick, that we are charting our course based on his phony road signs, following a path of sin thinking it is a path of virtue. We cry because we realize that even the greatest tzadikim – such as Nadav and Avihu – are not immune from this deception. If they could fall prey to the yetzer hara’s foul play, then certainly we can, as well. And thus, on Yom Kippur we cry – not only for the mistakes we know we’ve made, but also for the mistakes we can’t even know about, because we don’t see them as mistakes.
How can we protect ourselves from this trap of the yetzer hara? What can we do to ensure that we do not confuse piety and evil?
First, as in every area of life, we need to pray for Gd’s help. King David says in Tehillim, “Hashem li be’ozrai va’ani ereh besonai” – that he needs Gd’s help with his friends, while he can take care of his enemies. David felt confident in protecting himself from those whom he could clearly identify as his adversaries, but he needed Gd to protect him from enemies disguised as friends. This is true of our actions, as well. We need to beseech Gd for help in distinguishing our “friends” from our “enemies” – in determining which courses of action we should embrace and which we must avoid. We must pray for the clarity and wisdom needed to accurately distinguish between right and wrong.
Secondly, we need to learn and seek guidance from scholars. The Gemara in Masechet Kiddushin teaches that whenever we confront the yetzer hara, we should “pull it to the study hall.” This might mean that if we wish to avoid the yetzer hara’s trap, we need to invest time to learn. The Torah tells us what is right and what is wrong. It guides us along the path that leads to Gan Eden. The more Torah guidance we receive, the better able we will be to find our way and avoid the pitfalls that the yetzer harasets before us. Alongside our prayers for help, we must help ourselves by seeking knowledge and guidance in our lifelong search for the proper path.
Unholy Holy Wars
This message is very relevant to this time period – the weeks of the omer, between Pesach and Shavuot.
During these weeks, we mourn the tragic death of Rabbi Akiva’s students, who were stricken with a fatal disease because, as the Gemara teaches, they did not treat each other respectfully. This is a time earmarked for reflection in the area of interpersonal relations – specifically, treating and speaking about our fellow Jews with respect.
One of the common mistakes made by otherwise religiously devout people is waging wars against those who are – or are perceived to be – less religiously committed. Too often, people use their religious devotion as a license to insult, malign, and fight against their fellow Jews. The yetzer hara has a very easy time turning lashon hara (negative speech about others) and mahloket (fighting) into mitzvot. People have a natural desire to feel superior to others, and this desire is commonly exploited by the yetzer hara to breed discord and hate that tears apart families, friendships and communities – as every one of us knows all too well. This is a trap that is so easy to fall into – feeling that we are fighting a holy war by looking down at those who don’t talk, dress or act like us, by insulting them and by talking about them behind their backs.
As I’ve said many times in the past, virtually all such “holy wars” are very unholy. The same Torah that commands us to strictly observe halachah commands us to love and be kind to those Jews who do not. We must never compromise our religious principles, but neither may we ever compromise our civility or decency in the process of upholding those principles.
If we ever confront the “yetzer hara” of anger and disdain for those whom we view as less religious than us, we must immediately “bring it to the study hall” – consult with great rabbis to determine how to proceed. We need guidance to distinguish between sincere religious conviction, and arrogance disguised as sincere religious conviction. The yetzer hara is ingeniously adept at making the two look identical, and we therefore need the help of our Torah sages to tell the difference.
The tragic story of Nadav and Avihu teaches us that not everything which seems and feels “religious” is actually so. Courses of action which seem virtuous and noble might in truth be sinful. Let us pray for and work towards the clarity we need to differentiate between right and wrong, so that we live the way Hashem truly wants us to live, following the road that leads to genuine spiritual achievement and lifelong spiritual growth, amen.