And Your Elders Shall Tell You

At the peak of the joy, a devastating tragedy occurred. As Bnei Yisrael rejoiced with the erection of the Mishkan and the inauguration of Aharon and his sons into the Kehunah, “the sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, each took his firepan, put fire in it, placed ketores upon it, and brought before Hashem an alien fire that He had not commanded them.” Then “A fire went forth from before Hashem and consumed them; and they died before Hashem.”

Quoting the Tanna Rabi Eliezer, Rashi explains that the sons of Aharon died because they rendered a halachic decision before their Rebbi, Moshe Rabbeinu.

According to many authorities, the ruling they rendered — that though a fire had descended from Heaven, there still was an obligation to provide fire from this temporal world as well — was in fact correct. But reaching this decision and acting upon it without consulting with Moshe Rabbeinu was their fatal error.

This validating of their psak halachah is puzzling. After all, the Torah itself describes what occurred and states that they brought an “alien fire,” an eish zarah, an act that “they had not been commanded” to do and that was not correct.

The Maharal explains that only because they neglected to consult Moshe Rabbeinu was their fire considered “alien” and their action one that “they had not been commanded” to do.

We find in Chazal a number of similar episodes. In Eruvin (63a) we learn of a disciple of Rabi Eliezer who rendered a halachic decision in his presence.

“It would be a wonder to me if he survives the year,” Rabi Eliezer later commented to his wife.

When that disciple passed away before the year was up, “Are you a navi?” Rabi Eliezer’s wife asked him.

“I am neither a navi nor the son of a navi,” he replied, “ but I have a mesorah that anyone who is moreh halachah bifnei rabbo is liable for the death penalty.”

Why didn’t Rabi Eliezer forgive this student for his error in judgment and thus save his life?

We find that Shmuel Hanavi very nearly lost his life at the age of two. His mother fulfilled her vow and brought him to serve in the Mishkan at Shilo. At that time the child Shmuel realized that they were waiting for a kohen to shect the korban, and he pointed out — correctly — that even a Yisrael can do this part of the avodah.

Eli Hakohen ascertained that the two-year-old had the mental capacity of a 20-year-old, and was therefore liable for the death penalty. It was only his mother Chanah’s heartfelt plea, “For this child did I pray,” that saved his life.

What is it about being moreh halachah bifnei Rabbo — rendering halachic decision in the presence of one’s teacher — that makes it such a deadly sin?

Hagaon Harav Chaim Shmulevitz, zt”l, says that it does not appear to be merely a matter of violating the honor of his teacher. When a youth ran to Moshe Rabbeinu and informed him that Eldad and Meidad, two of Ziknei Yisrael, were prophesying in the camp, Yehoshua bin Nun spoke up and said, “My master Moshe, incarcerate them!”

Yehoshua acted solely out of concern for the honor of Moshe Rabbeinu in recommending this punishment; yet the Midrash tells us that because he expressed his own opinion in the presence of his Rebbe, Yehoshua did not merit having any sons of his own.

Harav Shmulevitz says that the gravity of this matters stems from the fundamental role it plays in the continuity of Am Yisrael.

Yisrael is compared to a bird: Just as a bird can’t fly without its wings, so Yisrael can’t do anything without its zekeinim, elders (Midrash).

Other living creatures manage perfectly well without wings, but not a bird! Other nations can manage without elders, wise sages, to lead them on their way; but Am Yisrael can’t exist without the presence and the leadership of the elders.

As long as we turn to our elders for guidance and counsel, we can grow and thrive. Tampering with this system — even in the most minute way — endangers our very existence.

Being moreh halachah lifnei rabbo — making decisions on one’s own without consulting a mentor and teacher — is a step towards spiritual anarchy. This is a sacrosanct line, and Rabi Eliezer felt that crossing it could not be forgiven.

In every generation we have been blessed with spiritual giants who lead us on the right path. May we all merit to recognize the imperative of cleaving to them, and subjugating ourselves to daas Torah.