Shemini: Aaron’s Four Sons

Four sons.  We have completed the week of Passover/Pesach, with its ritual commemorating the exodus from Egypt.  For at least 1,500 years this ritual has included a description of the “four sons”—four kinds of children the parent must teach about the exodus.

Now I am preparing to go to Ashland, Oregon, for a weekend learning from Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, and I will be telling a new Torah monologue inspired by the Torah portion of the week, Shemini (“Eighth”).  In this portion, Aaron and his four sons emerge from seven days of seclusion after Moses anointed them as priests, and  engage in the final ritual inauguration of  the mishkan, the dwelling-place for God.  Only two of Aaron’s four sons survive the day.

The four sons in the Passover reading are based on four places in the Torah where a father tells his son the reason for performing the Passover ritual.  Three of these answers are preceded by a question by a hypothetical son (Deuteronomy 6:20, Exodus 12:26, and Exodus 13:14).  The fourth place, Exodus 13:8, merely implies it is the answer to a child’s question.  The rabbis of the first several centuries C.E. took these lines out of context in order to describe four kinds of children:

the “wise son” who wants to know all the rules;

the “wicked son” who thinks Passsover has nothing to do with him;

the “simple son” who merely asks “What is this?”;

and the son who does not even know how to ask.

In the Torah, all four answers are variations on “Because God freed us from slavery in Egypt”.  The answers in the Torah are clearly addressed to the descendants of the Israelites in general, while the elaborations in the Passover ritual refer to four general types of children.  I have never seen a haggadah (a book telling the Passover ritual from start to finish) that connects the “four sons” with Aaron’s four sons.  But next year, I hope to write one.

Two years ago I analyzed what happened to Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, in my blog “Shemini: Strange Fire”.  As I wrote my new Torah monologue the past week, I became interested in the psychology of the two younger sons, the survivors who were not consumed by the fire from God:  Elazar and Itamar.

In birth order, the sons of the high priest Aaron and his wife, Elisheva, are:

Nadav = Willing Donor

Avihu = He Is My Father

Elazar = God Helps

Itamar = Island of Date Palms

Although the Torah gives reasons for the names of many of the people in its stories, it is silent about these four.  Here is what I imagine:

Elisheva had a dream when each of her four sons was born in Egypt. She saw her firstborn walking toward God’s throne, bringing God a glorious gift.  So she named him Nadav, “Willing Donor”.  And Nadav lived up to his name.  Whenever he learned another way to worship the Holy One, he threw his whole soul into it.  When the men asked his father, Aaron, to make an idol for them to worship, Nadav said, “No, don’t do it!  Our god only appears in fire, or in a pillar of cloud.  You can’t drag that holiness down into mere metal!” Later, when holy fire poured forth from God and consumed the animals on the new altar before the mishkan (the new, authorized dwelling-place for God), Nadav picked up his fire-pan in an ecstasy of desire to give his soul to the true god, the god of fire.  And his soul was consumed.

When her second son was born, Elisheva dreamed he was toddling after Aaron, mimicking his father’s walk.  So she named him Avihu, “He is My Father”.  And Avihu lived up to his name.  From his first step, he was always imitating Daddy.  When the men asked Aaron for an idol, Avihu said, “Yes, do it!  Our god is so great, He can appear anywhere, even in an idol.”  And when Aaron made the Golden Calf, Avihu built the fire to melt the gold.  Later, Avihu watched his father pick up an incense-pan and follow Moses into the inner sanctuary of the new mishkan.  Both men came out and blessed the people, and then a river of holy fire poured over the altar.  Avihu took his own pan and walked toward the Holy of Holies.  And the fire from God consumed his soul.

When her third son was born, Elisheva saw a shepherd’s staff moving all by itself, pointing out hazards along the road.  And she saw her baby following the staff carefully, and walking in safety.  So she named him Elazar, “God Helps”.  And Elazar lived up to his name.  He took his job as a Levite, and then as a priest, very seriously, and he never acted without checking to get the details right.  When the men asked Aaron for an idol, Elazar said, “No, don’t do anything without Moses’ approval.  And if we have to spend the rest of our lives waiting for Moses to come back down the mountain, so be it.”  Later, when holy fire poured over the new altar, Elazar reached for his fire-pan, wanting to give something, anything, to the all-powerful God.  But he drew his hand back, because Moses had not commanded it.  And he lived to become the high priest after Aaron died.

When her fourth son was born, Elisheva was exhausted.  She didn’t dream about anybody.  She just had a vision of an island covered with palm trees, date palms.  So she named the baby Itamar, “Island of Dates”.  And little Itamar turned out to be a sweet and loving boy. When the men asked Aaron for an idol, Itamar said nothing, because he did not understand enough about God—and because he was so much younger, he was not used to being listened to.  Later, when holy fire poured over the new altar, Itamar could not even remember where he had left his fire-pan, and he felt no impulse to bring incense to God.  He just wanted to survive the awesome spectacle, and learn his new priestly duties, and make his own life in whatever free time was left to him.

The Torah monologue I’ll tell in Ashland is from the viewpoint of Itamar.  But maybe next year I will write another Torah monologue, from the viewpoint of Elisheva.

And next year, God willing, I will write a haggadah for Passover in which the four sons of Aaron and Elisheva are the four sons of  Passover.  But I won’t list them by birth order.  Elazar will be the “wise son”, the one who wants to learn all the rules, so he will make no mistakes in his service to God.

Nadav. as I imagine him, is like the “wicked son”, the one who thinks the religion of his fathers has nothing to do with him.  He not really wicked, since he willingly gives himself to God.  But he does not listen to his father Aaron or his uncle Moses; he brings his own “strange fire” to God.

Avihu, in my book, is the “simple son”, awed by all the ceremony.  All gods are exciting to him, and he is just as willing to worship the Golden Calf as his father was to make it.  When Aaron repents and commits to the god of Moses, so does Avihu.  But without real understanding, he flings himself into the impulse of the moment.

Itamar, Aaron’s youngest son, is like the son who does not know how to ask.  He does not understand the new family business of priesthood, but he is willing to learn it.  He does not understand the impulse to give everything to God, but he understands the desire to give to other human beings.

I have to admit I am more like Nadav than Elazar, making up my own mind regardless of what my my predecessors taught.  So I had better be careful when I play with fire. At least I am not impulsive, the way I see Avihu.  Most of all, I can identify with Itamar, the novice who does not even know what to ask, and who tries to serve both God and his own life and loved ones.

Which son do you resemble?

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