God

Moses’ Cryptic Comfort

April 1, 2024

When encountering someone who’s recently lost a loved one, I might comfort them by saying something like,  “I’m so sorry for your loss”, or even, “I’m here if you need anything.” That’s at the very least! If I’m closer to them, I might help cook a meal, pick up their kids from school, or any of the many other things you’d expect from a friend or community member.  In the Bible, when Aharon’s sons tragically die during the inauguration of the Tabernacle, we might expect Moses’s words of comfort to be similarly gentle and sweet. Maybe he’d even offer a heartfelt embrace to his brother! Yet the words Moses shares with Aharon are the opposite of what we might expect. In fact, they’re downright confusing! So, what did Moses say, and, as importantly, why did he say it?

Let’s start by setting the scene.

The sweet scents of the Sacrificial altar begin to waft through the Israelites’ camp. It’s the eighth day after the Tabernacle’s inauguration, and today it’s open and ready for business. There’s high anticipation in the camp—the people can’t wait to serve God in this new and special way. 

The priests have been trained, have sat in mediation, and know exactly what’s expected of them. They’re carefully choreographed. The Bible famously spares no details in this regard!

Finally, Aharon blesses the Israelites, and God accepts his fire offerings. The crowd cheers. Elated and emotional, they fall to their knees in awe of the Lord.

It’s the start of a beautiful new chapter in history.

But then something terrible happens. Aharon’s two oldest sons, Nadab and Abihu, ignore the rules and bring a strange and foreign offering, not commanded by God. It’s a record-scratch moment, and the consequences are immediate. A pillar of fire consumes both of them and, in a flash of light, Nadab and Abihu are no more.

It’s a shocking tragedy, and Aharon has now lost his two eldest sons.

Thinking about what I might say in that situation, even an “I’m so sorry for your loss” feels inadequate.

Let’s try, then, to decode Moses’s response. The Bible relates:

What does Moses mean by these mysterious words? At first glance, it’s tricky to find comfort in them. Maybe they even feel a little cold! 

Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, an esteemed 20th-century Jewish leader, helps us peel back the layers. When Moses refers to the “glory (kavod) before the people,” Dr. Lamm suggests that Moses is referencing the nation’s awe and joy in those days, as the Tabernacle was opened for the first time. Personally, I’d give anything to be there for that moment, feeling those emotions! But still, to paraphrase Rabbi Lamm, those feelings of the average Israelite weren’t the highest level of connection. They were from the outside looking in – like looking at a celebrity on a stage.

But Nadab and Abihu couldn’t be more different. When Moses says, “through those near to Me, I show Myself holy,” it’s to them whom he’s referring. Nadab and Abihu weren’t just ‘in the crowd’. They were on the main stage – actually performing the rites and services on behalf of the Israelites, showing them the holiness of God!

What Moses is telling Aharon is the ultimate comfort – that what happened to Nadab and Abihu isn’t because God didn’t care for them. On the contrary – God reacted as He did to their transgressions precisely because they were closer to Him than nearly anyone else. What they did mattered to the Israelites and to God in the deepest of ways. And there can be few comforts greater than that – to know (from Moses himself!) that a loved one led a life full of meaning.

But Moses is doing more than speaking to Aharon – he’s also speaking to us about how we can elevate our relationships with God. Even more than feeling the emotions – which is an important first step in worship – Moses is illustrating that there’s an even higher level – that of taking action to advance Godliness in the world. Whether it’s setting an example of good conduct in our families or communities, actively participating in workshops or events, or leading the way in a charity, we can take inspiration from Moses’s words of comfort and do our part to “show” the holiness of God.

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Sara Lamm

Sara Lamm is a content editor for TheIsraelBible.com and Israel365 Publications. Originally from Virginia, she moved to Israel with her husband and children in 2021. Sara has a Masters Degree in Education from Bankstreet college and taught preschool for almost a decade before making Aliyah to Israel. Sara is passionate about connecting Bible study with “real life’ and is currently working on a children’s Bible series.

Sara Lamm

Sara Lamm is a content editor for TheIsraelBible.com and Israel365 Publications. Originally from Virginia, she moved to Israel with her husband and children in 2021. Sara has a Masters Degree in Education from Bankstreet college and taught preschool for almost a decade before making Aliyah to Israel. Sara is passionate about connecting Bible study with “real life’ and is currently working on a children’s Bible series.

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