Immediately following the untimely deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the elder sons of Aharon Hakohen, Moshe spoke to his bereaved brother and remaining nephews. He told them not to conduct themselves as mourners, due to their need to perform the avodah.
And Moshe said to Aharon 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 L-rd has burned.” (Vayikra 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 korban minchah, Elazar and Isamar are suddenly referred to as “nosarim” (survivors).
And Moshe spoke to Aharon and his surviving sons, Elazar and Isamar, “Take the meal offering that is left over from the L-rd’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 egel. Now, with the demise of their elder siblings, 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 passuk 12 and in many other instances throughout Tanach. 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 avodah that led the passuk to add this new designation, as if it were not applicable until now? (We find the same title used a few pesukim later, with regard to their mishandling of the goat offering. “And Moshe thoroughly investigated concerning the sin offering he goat, and behold, it had been burnt! So he was angry with Elazar and Isamar, Aharon’s surviving sons…” Here, too, the context of the avodah seems to warrant this particular title.)
In his commentary to the aforementioned Rashi, Sifsei Chachamim suggests that Nadav and Avihu did not die exclusively because of Aharon’s role in making the egel. Had that been the case, they would have died sooner. Furthermore, Rashi earlier (passuk 2) quoted a debate amongst Chazal 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 (the word nosar is also related to the words matir and mutar, which connote freedom or release). 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 avodah, their core mission as Kohanim.
The term nosarim was not applicable immediately after Nadav and Avihu’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 avodah. 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 make 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 Aharon’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 egel 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 identities, 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 chag of Pesach, which focuses us on achieving our own sense of freedom. The Hebrew word for freedom, cheirus, comes from the word chor, meaning a hole. Freedom is manifested through freedom of choice, the ability to “fill holes” in our lives (ben chorin) by making positive decisions. 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 ovdei Hashem, and gain the kind of inspiration that will motivate us to see each test as an opportunity for new growth, success and fulfillment.
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff is an executive coach, writer and teacher living in Passaic, NJ. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.