Immediately following the untimely deaths of Nadab and Abihu, the elder sons of Aaron the Priest, Moses spoke to his bereaving brother and remaining nephews. He told them not to conduct themselves as mourners, due to their need to perform the avodah.
And Moses said to Aaron and to Elazar and to Isamar, his sons, “Do not leave your heads unshorn, and do not rend your garments, so that you shall not die, and lest He be angry with the entire community, but your brothers, the entire house of Israel, shall lament over the fire that the Lord has burned.” (Leviticus 10:6)
Notice that he did not use any unusual designation when addressing them. However, a few verses later, when the conversation shifts to the meal offering, Elazar and Isamar are suddenly referred to as “nosarim” (survivors).
And Moses spoke to Aaron and his surviving sons, Elazar and Isamar, “Take the meal offering that is left over from the Lord’s fire offerings, and eat it as unleavened loaves beside the altar, for it is a holy of holies.” (Ibid 12)
Commenting on the word nosarim, Rashi explains that Elazar and Isamar had survived the predetermined death that two of the four brothers were destined to experience due to their father’s involvement with the golden calf. Now, with the demise of their elder brethren, they were in the clear.
Two questions emerge from this understanding. First, the term nosarim, while ostensibly translatable as “survivors”, typically means “leftovers”, as we find at the very end of verse 12 and in many other instances throughout the Torah. Even if they were initially earmarked as candidates for a premature death, why does the Torah refer to these great men in such an unflattering way?
Moreover, what changed between the initial conversation about mourning and the subsequent dialogue about the service that led the verse to add this new designation, as if it was not applicable until now?
In his commentary to the aforementioned Rashi, Sifsei Chachamim suggests that Nadab and Abihu did not die exclusively because of Aaron’s role in making the golden calf. Had that been the case, they would have died sooner. Furthermore, Rashi earlier (verse 2) quoted a debate amongst Talmudic sages as to whether they died due to a lack of reverence or over intoxication. Based on these points, he says that they died as a combination of their own inappropriate conduct and their father’s earlier misdeeds.
With their brothers’ deaths, Elazar and Isamar became survivors, released of the shackles of their own potential demise. But the true value of their release was not measured by the fact that they could live on. It was determined by their own ability to achieve and remain clear of misconduct, particularly within the realm of the service, their core mission as priests.
The term nosarim was not applicable immediately after Nadab and Abihu’s deaths because at that point they were being addressed simply as relatives of the deceased. Yes, it was in the context of their priesthood, but only insofar as them not detracting from the sanctity of the service. Their designation as survivors was only applied once they performed the avodah themselves and emerged from the experience unscathed.
The feeling of survival is something that we all live through. For many of us, it is something that we encounter daily. We continually “get by,” through a variety of personal, financial and other challenges, with the hope that we will live to see another day. At the same time, we remain unsure if the struggles that it promises makes that next day truly worth waiting for.
How can we break through this ongoing rut? How can we begin to live an empowered, positive existence rather than a minimalistic one in which we continually seek to survive, if not wait for the other shoe to drop?
One approach is to learn a lesson from Aaron’s two youngest sons. Elazar and Isamar understood that they were in a compromised position. Their father had played a central role in the creation of the golden calf and their lives were at stake. They easily could have “packed it in” and lived a doomed, uninspired existence. Instead, they used each day to develop their own identity, establish their self-worth and make meaningful contributions. They survived their moment of crisis by seeing beyond it and finding ways to make each day worth living.
Soon we will celebrate the holiday of Passover, which focuses us on achieving our own sense of freedom. This can only happen if we view life as an opportunity to grow rather than an experience to endure. May we merit following in the ways of Elazar and Isamar, who used their new leases on life to pursue their true purpose as servants of God, and gain the kind of inspiration that will motivate us to see each test as an opportunity for new growth, success and fulfillment.