As Parashat Acharei Mot begins, Aaron is still dealing with the fallout of the tragic death of two of his sons. The Midrash in Avot D’rabbi Nathan (1:14) states that Moshe had already comforted Aaron in the immediate aftermath of Nadav and Avihu’s death, as indicated by the phrase “and Aharon was silent (Leviticus 10:3).”
Moshe may have given Aharon a small amount of comfort and peace of mind amid the unspeakable pain of losing two children, but Aaron most likely never fully recovered from such a loss — he certainly hadn’t at this point in time. This is why the Torah makes sure to inform us that our parasha takes place “after the death of two of Aharon’s sons (Leviticus 16:1).” However, it is not clear how what follows this exposition is related to this narrative. Hashem instructs Moshe to teach Aharon the service for Yom Kippur.
“Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain…Thus only shall Aaron enter the Shrine…” (Leviticus 16:2-3).
What is the significance of Aharon receiving the instructions for the Yom Kippur service in the Mishkan right after his sons’ death? I would like to suggest that the timing of these instructions is fundamental to Aharon’s recovery from his trauma.
The Midrash in Avot D’rabbi Nathan not only informs us that Moshe comforted Aharon, but it also delivers a fundamental lesson in how to comfort those who are suffering from a loss — specifically a parent confronting the loss of a child. The Midrash tells of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, one of the great Tannaitic sages, lost his son and was inconsolable. His students came to him to offer comfort but failed each time. The Midrash relates that each student tried to comfort Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai by relating an example of a biblical figure who lost a child and was comforted — Adam, Job, Aharon, and David. Yet R. Yochanan refused to be comforted.
Finally, Rabbi Eleazar ben Azarya told R. Yochanan:
You are like the man who was given a very precious jewel by a ruler. Every single day, the man would cry out with worry: ‘Woe unto me! The ruler has implored me to care for the jewel with absolute trust. When will the ruler want the jewel returned?’ You, Master, had a son. He studied the Torah…And he departed the world without sin. You should be comforted knowing that you returned him with absolute trust.
This is what finally comforted Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. R. Eleazar understood that R. Yochanan did not need precedent to accept comfort; rather, he was suffering from the tremendous guilt that can accompany a parent who loses a child — he was forced to confront the entirety of his son’s life and wonder if he had been a good enough parent, and he wondered what might have been if he done things differently. R. Eleazar reassured him that his son lived a good life, and R. Yochanan fulfilled his role as a parent to the fullest.
While Aharon was initially consoled by Moshe in 10:3 (in a manner similar to that of R. Eleazar’s), he still faced the prospect of how he could possibly continue to serve in the Mishkan — participating in the same place and service which brought the death of his sons. Aharon, who was already hesitant to perform the service (see Leviticus 9:7 and Rashi ad loc.), had to deal with the guilt of engaging in the same space and the same service that killed his sons, as well as the all too real fear of death that might result. It is with this sensitivity that God instructs Moshe as to how Aharon should conduct himself properly in the holiest service in the Mishkan.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, in his seminal essay “Halakhic Man,” tells that his grandfather, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, was often overcome with the fear of death. When he would be overtaken by this fear, he would study the technical Halachot surrounding death in order to create an objective framework through which to confront his mortality, and he would find peace. This is exactly how Hashem instructs Moshe to help Aharon — to engage with the holiest and consequently most dangerous service in the Mishkan, with objectivity and complexity. To eliminate the elements of fear and guilt, “calm the turbulence of his soul and work to imbue it with a spirit of joy and gladness.” This gave Aharon the confidence to perform his holy work in the Mishkan without ignoring the tremendous personal and familial significance the place and the service had for him. It was with this that Aharon approached the holiness of the Mishkan.
Rabbi Don Cantor is the OU-JLIC Educator of Johns Hopkins University Hillel. All translations are pulled from sefaria.org.