The week of inaugurating the משכן is over, and it’s opening day:
There have been many explanations of what happened to נדב and אביהוא (and why), but I want to look at a previous pasuk: ויבא משה ואהרן אל אהל מועד ויצאו. After the sacrifices are offered, משה and אהרן go into the משכן and immediately leave. Why?
We will look at Rashi’s answer, but first we need to look at the previous pasuk: וישא אהרן את ידו אל העם ויברכם; וירד מעשת החטאת והעלה והשלמים. We are familiar with נשיאת כפים, which won’t be described until פשרת נשא in 6 weeks:
But that’s not a problem, because it was all part of the same day. About 20% of the Torah, from פרשת פקודי through פרשת בהעלותך, describes the events of this ראש חודש ניסן, with lots of flashbacks and flash-forwards.
So אהרן is on top of the מזבח and turns to the people and blesses them.
That all makes sense. But why does the Torah tell us after, וירד מעשת החטאת והעלה והשלמים?
That’s not particularly helpful. I would assume that מקום נשיאת כפים was the מזבח; where else would אהרן be? Rashi is telling us that the text is emphasizing that אהרן's ירידה was from the מזבח. So what? The gemara gives a דרש answer, that the text is connecting נשיאת כפים to the עבודה:
The Netziv says there’s a more פשט explanation of the pasuk.
Now, the fire from heaven (or from the קדש הקדשים) doesn’t come until two psukim later, after אהרן has come down:
So we have this picture of אהרן on top of the מזבח; he’s set up the first sacrifices that he will offer (the previous week, it’s been his brother doing everything), he turns to the people and blesses them, and then…nothing. That’s not how it is supposed to work:
That last sounds familiar; in our perek, when the fire finally does come down, וירא כל העם וירנו ויפלו על פניהם. But it doesn’t come down when אהרן blesses the people. וירד מעשת החטאת והעלה והשלמים is אהרן's failure. This was to be the return of the כבוד ה׳ in the fire from heaven that had last been experienced at מעמד הר סיני and lost with מעשה העגל. And nothing happened.
So we have some understanding of the sin of נדב and אביהוא, when they brought their אש זרה. They weren’t wrong:
And so Rashi explains (in his first explanation) that their fundamental error was in not asking משה first.
But what does אהרן himself do after he trudges down the ramp, with no divine fire in sight? Rashbam explains why the next pasuk is ויבא משה ואהרן אל אהל מועד:
Rashi brings two explanations:
What does קטרת have to do with anything? We’ll have to come back to that. The second, פשט, explanation, I can understand. אהרן knows why he failed; it’s all his fault, from the very beginning.
אהרן didn’t want to do the עבודה at all. He knew he would fail:
משה‘s response to אהרן’s failure is to take him (apparently against his will; ויבא משה ואהרן אל אהל מועד is in the singular) into the משכן, then they go out together (ויצאו) and both bless the people (ויברכו את העם). And now it works: וירא כבוד ה׳. אהרן's ברכה presumably was ברכת כהנים again:
But משה isn’t a כהן. His ברכה was different:
If the end of the perek is משה's “תפלה למשה” after he came out of the משכן with אהרן, I would assume that the beginning of the perek was his תפלה inside. What was it about? It has the famous lines, כי אלף שנים בעיניך כיום אתמול and ימי שנותינו בהם שבעים שנה. I always shallowly read it as a message that human beings should be humble, realize that they are finite and mortal and so should obey the infinite G-d. But that’s not what it’s about at all. It’s a prayer that G-d should recognize our frailty, and forgive us even if we’ve sinned, since we are only human.
You are all-powerful, and want us to do תשובה:
But our lives are over before they have really begun:
Because of our sins, we are punished; we’re not denying that the punishment is deserved;
But because our lives are so fleeting, we can’t really understand what You want. Help us!
And so You, ה׳, should turn from your anger even if we have not returned to You:
You say “שובו בני אדם”; we say “שובה ה׳…והנחם על עבדיך”.
It certainly fits the context that we are assuming here, and the perek continues with יראה אל עבדיך and the וירא כבוד ה׳ אל כל העם as we’ve said. But why was this necessary at all? ה׳ had already forgiven בני ישראל for חטא העגל; that’s why building the משכן was possible in the first place.
I propose that while the תפלה למשה was addressed to ה׳, it was intended for אהרן. ה׳ had forgiven him, but he had not forgiven himself. He expected to fail before he even started: היה אהרן בוש וירא לגשת.
Once he accepted the fact that ה׳ had forgiven him, אהרן could bless the people באהבה.
And Rashi’s first explanation, that משה brought אהרן into the משכן to teach him מעשה הקטרת? I think that this is fundamentally the same idea. משה wasn’t showing him עבודת הקטרת, how to offer the incense. He was showing him מעשה הקטרת, how to make the incense. The ingredients of the קטרת teach us that we don’t need to be perfect for ה׳ to accept our prayers.
Accepting ourselves, with all our human imperfection, is part of our עבודת ה׳.