Does God Punish People Who Are Close to Him More Harshly?
Sanctified by YHWH’s Kavod
God finishes his instructions about the consecration of the priests and the Tent of Meeting (אוהל מועד) with a flourish:
שמות כט:מב ...אֲשֶׁר אִוָּעֵד לָכֶם שָׁמָּה לְדַבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ שָׁם. כט:מג וְנֹעַדְתִּי שָׁמָּה לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְנִקְדַּשׁ בִּכְבֹדִי.
Exod 29:42...For there I will meet with you, and there I will speak with you, 29:43and there I will meet with the Israelites, and it shall be sanctified by my kavod (presence or glory).
What or who will be sanctified by YHWH’s kavod (“presence” or “glory”)? Contextually, the subject of the verb וְנִקְדַּשׁ, “and it will be sanctified” in the Masoretic Text (MT) and the Samaritan Pentateuch (SP) has to be the Tent of Meeting, which is mentioned in the previous verse. Verse 44, then, repeats and expands the same thought:
שמות כט:מד וְקִדַּשְׁתִּי אֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְאֶת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וְאֶת אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת בָּנָיו אֲקַדֵּשׁ לְכַהֵן לִי. כט:מה וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהָיִיתִי לָהֶם לֵאלֹהִים. כט:מו וְיָדְעוּ כִּי אֲנִי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִי אֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לְשָׁכְנִי בְתוֹכָם אֲנִי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיהֶם.
Exod 29:44 I will sanctify the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and I will sanctify Aaron and his sons to serve Me as priests. 29:45 I will abide among the Israelites, and I will be their God. 29:46 And they shall know that I YHWH am their God, who brought them out from the land of Egypt that I might abide among them, I YHWH their God.
Whether we understand the appearance of God’s kavod as God’s “intangible immanence” or as “a palpably concrete manifestation of the deity,” the idea of the appearance of God’s kavod is a common theme in particular sections of the Torah. To cite one example, when the Tent is finally completed, we read:
שמות מ:לד וַיְכַס הֶעָנָן אֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וּכְבוֹד יְ־הוָה מָלֵא אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן. מ:לה וְלֹא יָכֹל מֹשֶׁה לָבוֹא אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד כִּי שָׁכַן עָלָיו הֶעָנָן וּכְבוֹד יְ־הוָה מָלֵא אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן.
Exodus 40:34 The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of YHWH filled the Tabernacle. 40:35 Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of YHWH filled the Tabernacle.
Thus, the point seems to be that by having his kavod enter the Tabernacle and dwell in it, God will be sanctifying this structure as His dwelling place among the Israelites.
Sanctifying God: The Septuagint
The Septuagint and some other ancient versions reflect a different text of verse 43, or perhaps, a different understanding; the verb is rendered as ἁγιασθήσομαι, “I [God] will be sanctified,” in the Septuagint, which would be וְנִקְדַּשְׁתִּי (venikdashti) in Hebrew. The idea that God (and not just the Tent, the altar, and the priests) can be sanctified is also common in biblical literature. One result of erecting and inaugurating the Tent of Meeting could be that God is sanctified through these actions.
Sanctified by Those I Honor: Midrashic Reading
Some ancient rabbinic interpreters also read the phrase as saying that God will be sanctified, but based on a very different, midrashic understanding of the word בִּכְבֹדִי, “My Presence” (b. Zevachim 115b):
ונקדש בכבודי – אל תקרי בכבודי אלא במכובדי. דבר זה אמר הקב״ה למשה ולא ידעו עד שמתו בני אהרן כיון שמתו בני אהרן אמר לו אהרן אחי לא מתו בניך אלא להקדיש שמו של הקב״ה כיון שידע אהרן שבניו ידועי מקום הן שתק.
“Shall be sanctified by My Presence” (Exodus 29:43). Do not read: “by My Presence [bikhevodi]”; rather, read: by [or through] My honored ones [bimekhubbaday]. The Blessed Holy One made this statement to Moses, but Moses did not know its meaning until the sons of Aaron died. Once the sons of Aaron died, Moses said to him: “Aaron, my brother, your sons died only to sanctify the Name of the Blessed Holy One.” When Aaron understood that his sons were beloved by the Omnipresent [that is, they were God’s “honored ones”], he was silent.
In this midrashic understanding, kevodi is not a reference to God’s presence but to God’s honored people. The subject of the verb venikdash now is also changed: God (and not the Tent) is sanctified through the strict punishment which God metes out to God’s honored ones. God is sanctified since, when the rest of us see that even those who are particularly close to God are punished for their infractions, we are likely to fear God more and improve our behavior.
The Deaths of Nadav and Avihu
This midrash on a verse in Exodus is motivated by the need to explain a difficult passage in Leviticus. After the deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu (Lev 10:2), Moses says to Aaron:
ויקרא י:ג הוּא אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְ־הוָה לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ וְעַל פְּנֵי כָל הָעָם אֶכָּבֵד.
Lev 10:3 This is what YHWH [has] said [before]: Through those near to Me I am sanctified, and gain glory before all the people.
As Rashi (1040–1105) asks (ad loc.): “היכן דיבר—where did God say this?”
This brought Rashi, based on the Talmudic passage cited above, to the idea that God had said in Exodus that he would be sanctified through those who are near Him when He said: venikdash bikhevodi, which means “I will be sanctified by, or through, My honored ones.” In his Exodus commentary (ad loc.), Rashi also cites this midrash, albeit as only one of two possible interpretations of the phrase. His first explanation is the standard reading of venikdash bikhevodi:
"ונקדש" המשכן "בכבודי"—שתשרה שכינתי בו.
“And it” the Tabernacle “shall be sanctified by My Presence”—for My Shekhinah shall rest there.
But then, Rashi presents his second explanation, a reworking of the midrash we saw above:
ומדרש אגדה: אל תיקרי בִּכְבוֹדִי, אלא בִּכְבוּדַי – במכובדים שלי. כאן רמז לו מיתת שני בני אהרן ביום הקמתו, וזהו שאמר משה: הוא אשר דבר י״י בקרובי אקדש. והיכן דבר הקב״ה? ונקדש בכבודי.
A midrashic comment is: Read not here bikhevodi, “by My Presence,” but bikhevuday, “through My honored ones.” Here He gave him [Moses] a hint concerning the death of Aaron’s sons on the day when it [the Tabernacle] would be erected. This is the meaning of what Moses later said, “This is what YHWH said, ‘Through those near to Me I am sanctified’.” But where had the Blessed Holy One said this? [Here, in the words,] venikdash bikhevodi.
Other commentators sidestepped the issue of seeking a textual precedent for Leviticus 10:3. In his commentary to Leviticus, Nahmanides (1194–1270) points out that it is not necessary to scour through the previous books of the Bible to look for this message. First, as Abraham ibn Ezra (1092–1167) argued, Moses could be reporting something that God had said, even if it was not recorded anywhere in the Torah. Second, the phrase could simply mean “this is what God considers an appropriate way to conduct the affairs of this world (whether God said it previously or not).” Nevertheless, for Rashi as well as for the midrash, it was important to find a specific verse to which Moses is referring back.
God Is Strict with Those Closest to Him
The idea behind the difficult phrases in Exodus and Leviticus, according to this midrash, is that God’s honor is increased whenever He strictly punishes those who are close to Him. The closer you are to God, the harsher may be the punishment you receive. This message was first delivered to Moses in God’s speech in Exodus 29, in the context of the building of the Tent of Meeting, because God wanted to warn Moses that when the Tent of Meeting was eventually dedicated, someone close to God would die.
According to Rashi (Lev 10:3), Moses assumed that God was referring either to him or to his brother, Aaron:
אמר לו משה לאהרן אהרן אחי יודע הייתי שיתקדש הבית במיודעיו של מקום והייתי סבור או בי או בך עכשיו רואה אני שהם גדולים ממני וממך
Moses said to Aaron: “My brother, Aaron! I knew that this House was to be sanctified through [the death of] those who are beloved by God and I thought it would be either through me or through you; now I see that these [your sons who have died] are greater than me or you.”
It is only after the death of Nadav and Avihu that Moses understands that they were the intended referents of God’s warning.
Rashi and a Third Text
Rashi introduces the same idea—that God is particularly strict in His punishment of righteous people, thereby sanctifying God— into his Torah commentary a third time, in a verse in Numbers about the sin of Moses and Aaron at Meribah, another text that associates death and holiness:
במדבר כ:יב וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל אַהֲרֹן יַעַן לֹא הֶאֱמַנְתֶּם בִּי לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי לְעֵינֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לָכֵן לֹא תָבִיאוּ אֶת הַקָּהָל הַזֶּה אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לָהֶם. כ:יג הֵמָּה מֵי מְרִיבָה אֲשֶׁר רָבוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת יְ־הוָה וַיִּקָּדֵשׁ בָּם.
Num 20:12 YHWH said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to sanctify Me in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” 20:13 Those are the Waters of Meribah—meaning that the Israelites quarreled with YHWH —through which He affirmed His sanctity.
Rashi explains the last phrase of the biblical text as meaning that the strict punishment of Moses and Aaron for a relatively minor infraction led to kiddush hashem, the sanctification of God’s name:
ויקדש בם—שמתו משה ואהרן על ידם. שכשהקב״ה עושה דין במקודשיו הוא יראוי ומתקדש על הבריות.
“And He was sanctified through them”—For Moses and Aaron died on account of them. When the Blessed Holy One executes judgement upon those who are holy to Him, He is revered and sanctified by all creatures.
The idea that God is especially strict when punishing those who are close to Him appears also in other Talmudic passages, other midrashim, and other biblical commentaries.
Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam (c. 1080–c. 1160) disagrees with Rashi’s interpretation of all three of these passages in the Torah (as he frequently does). In his commentary to Exodus 29:43, Rashbam writes:
ונקדש בכבודי – שאהא נראה לישראל כשיוקם המשכן, ותבא אש של מעלה ותאכל את הקרבנות, כדכתיב ביום שמיני: כי היום י"י נראה אליכם (ויקרא ט':ד'), וכת': וירא כבוד י"י אל כל העם. ותצא אש מלפני י"י ותאכל את העולה וגו' (ויקרא ט':כ"ג-כ"ד).
“[The Tent] shall be sanctified by My presence”—[God is saying:] “I shall appear to the Israelites when the Tabernacle is erected,” when divine fire will come and consume the sacrifices, as it is written in the Torah portion, Ba-yom ha-shemini, [that God promised,] “For today YHWH will appear to you.” (Lev 9:4) And [a few verses later, God did appear to them,] as it is written (Lev 9:23-24), “The Presence of YHWH appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from before YHWH and consumed the burnt offering....”
Just like Rashi and the midrash, Rashbam says that Exodus 29:43 alludes to the events of Leviticus 9-10, but the similarity ends there. According to Rashbam, the phrase about sanctification in Exodus has nothing to do with the deaths of Nadav and Avihu in Leviticus, but with the miraculous manifestation of God’s Presence in that same text. The Tent was sanctified through that miracle, and not through God killing Nadav and Avihu.
The Need to Continue Performing the Ceremony Despite the Tragedy
In his commentary to Lev 10:3, Rashbam goes further, offering an innovative understanding of bikerovay ekkadesh—"I will sanctify Myself through those who are close to Me”:
ויאמר משה אל אהרן—אל תתאבל ואל תבכה ואל תחדל מן העבודה, כי הדבר הזה אשר אני אומר לך, הוא אשר דבר י״י בקרובי אקדש—בכהנים גדולים הקרובים אלי לשרתני אני רוצה להתקדש,
“But Moses said to Aaron”—“Do not mourn or cry. Do not cease performing the service. For what I am saying to you now is that which the Lord had said, ‘בקרובי אקדש – I will sanctify Myself through those who are close to Me’": [This means that Moses said, “God had said to me,] ‘through those High Priests that are close to Me I wish to be sanctified.’”
In other words, Moses told Aaron that his duty as High Priest was to continue performing the divine service even though his sons had just died. Rashbam connects the phrase בקרובי אקדש in our verse to Leviticus 21:10–12 which legislates that a High Priest “does not go out of the sanctuary” and continues to perform his priestly duties, even when one of his parents or other close relatives dies.
In his commentary to Numbers 20, the story of the sin at Meribah, again Rashbam does not explain that the strict punishment of Moses and Aaron led to a sanctification of God. For Rashbam, the miracle of the water flowing from the rock (Num 20:11b) was what sanctified God.
In summary, for all three verses in the Torah that mean, according to Rashi (following rabbinic traditions), that God punishes those close to Him more harshly, and that God is thus sanctified, Rashbam came up with alternative explanations.
Theological or Exegetical Objection?
Did Rashbam dislike the idea of saying that God punishes those close to Him more harshly and is thus sanctified? Or did he simply object to Rashi’s interpretation of each of these three passages?
The language he uses in his Leviticus commentary to dismiss the approach of Rashi and the midrash is strident:
וזהו מותר ואמיתת פשוטו. אבל האגדה שאומרת שהיה מנחמו משה לאהרן על שאמר לו הקב״ה: ונקדש בכבודי בְּכְבוּדַי, וסבור הייתי או אני או אתה, עכשיו תדע שהם גדולים ממני וממך, אין זה לפי הפשט, וכי היה מבשר הקב״ה למשה עשו לי משכן, ובו ביום ימותו הגדולים שבכם?!
This [the explanation that Moses told Aaron to continue performing the divine service despite the death of his sons, and thus sanctify God] is the lesson of the text and it is the true plain meaning of Scripture. [There is] however an ’aggadah which says that Moses was comforting Aaron by saying to him: God had told me [before] (Ex. 29:43), “ונקדש בכבודי – that He would sanctify Himself בִּכְבוּדַי (bikhevuday),” through [the death of] someone whom He honors. I had thought that meant either me or you. Now you see that they [Nadav and Avihu] are greater than you or I [since God chose to sanctify Himself through their death]. [That explanation] does not follow the plain meaning of Scripture. Could God have really told Moses, “Make for me a Tabernacle and on the day it is erected your greatest people will die”?!
Particularly the last sentence of his comment, “Could God have really told Moses...” shows that Rashbam was very displeased with this interpretation. Was this because he considered it so far from peshat, from the contextual meaning of the words, or because he couldn’t imagine God telling Moses in advance that the inauguration of the Tent of Meeting would involve a tragic death? Or was it perhaps because he rejected outright the whole idea of God punishing more harshly those close to him?
It is difficult to arbitrate between these possibilities. Perhaps Rashbam accepted the theological idea taught by the classical rabbis but saw its application in these three verses as inappropriate. But, at a minimum, according to Rashbam, the Torah itself never teaches that God is sanctified through strict punishment of those closest to Him.
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Prof. Rabbi Marty Lockshin is Professor Emeritus at York University and lives in Jerusalem. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and his rabbinic ordination in Israel while studying in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook. Among Lockshin’s publications is his four-volume translation and annotation of Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah.
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