וידבר ה’ אל משה אחרי מות שני בני אהרן בקרבתם לפני ה’ וימותו
And the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they came near the Lord, and died
In the Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 20:1) it is written:
R. Simeon began his discourse with the text (Ecclesiastes 9:2) “הכל כאשר לכל מקרה אחד לצדיק ולרשע וכו’” (All things come alike to all; there is one event to the righteous and to the wicked). “לכל מקרה אחד לצדיק” (there is one event to the righteous) refers to the sons of Aaron, of whom it is written (Malachi 2:6) “בשלום ובמישור הלך אתי” )he walked with Me in peace and uprightness) and “ולרשע” (to the wicked) refers to Korah and his followers, in regard to whom it is written (Numbers 16:26), “סורו נא מעל אהלי האנשים הרשעים האלה” (depart, I pray you, from the tents of these wicked men). The latter entered the Tabernacle in a spirit of contentiousness and in the end were burnt, while the former entered without contentiousness, yet in the end they were also burnt.
Our master explained that R. Simeon was interpreting the words of Ecclesiastes, for God forbid that he would have meant that the identical punishment comes equally to all, that righteous and wicked are treated alike. Rather, R. Simeon meant that at times a righteous person is judged, in order to teach a lesson to the onlookers, by an exacting standard for a small transgression just as a wicked person would be judged for a severe transgression. He inferred that this is so from our verse which says “בקרבתם לפני ה’ וימותו” (in drawing near to the Eternal, they died). But is this correct? For was it not, in fact, because they brought forward “אש זרה” )a strange fire(, not because they drew near, that they died?
The Sifra records the statement of R. Jose the Galilean that the sons of Aaron died, because they came near, not because they brought a strange fire to the altar, while R. Akiva said that they died because they brought a strange fire, not because they came near.
So R. Simeon follows the opinion of his teacher, R. Akiva, that they died because they brought a strange fire. But in that case, why does the Scripture say “בקרבתם” (when they drew near)? R. Simeon therefore explains that their transgression of bringing a strange fire was not a capital offense for which they deserved to be killed. It was only because of the stature of these two princes of Israel that overstepping their bounds was considered a sin, because the Eternal is made holy among those who are close to Him. Thus, the words “בקרבתם לפני ה’” (having drawn near to the Eternal) means that it was because they were (already) close to the Eternal and very precious in His sight that they died. And this is why Ecclesiastes took up his discourse and said, “one fate comes to the righteous and the wicked,” because a righteous person is punished harshly for a minimal offense as is a wicked person for doing a great evil. (שביבי אש)
איש איש מבית ישראל אשר ישחט וכו’ ונכרת האיש ההוא וכו’ ולא יזבחו עוד את זבחיהם לשעירים אשר הם זונים אחריהם
Whichever man there is of the house of Israel, who ritually slaughters an ox . . . that man shall be cut off from among his people . . . And they shall no more offer their sacrifices to demons, after whom they play the harlot.
One may ask the following questions about this verse:
1. Why is “מבית ישראל” (from the house of Israel) written just after the Scripture already wote “בני ישראל דבר אל אהרן ואל בניו ואל כל” (you shall speak to Aaron, his sons, and all the children of Israel)?
2. Why should a person be “cut off” for slauhtering outside the Tabernacle and not bringing the animal to the door of the Tabernacle (פתח אוהל מועד)? It is not the case that such a person did, in fact, offer the animal as an idolatrous sacrifice.
3. How does the Ramban (Nahmanides) explain the verse that explicitly says “ולא יזבחו עוד את זבחיהם לשעירים” (so they shall no more slay their sacrifices for satyrs) which shows clearly that, as the Rambam (Maimonides) wrote, the Eternal only commanded our ancestors to bring sacrifices so that they should no longer offer sacrifices to the satyrs in the abominable fashion manner of the other nations? For the Rambam explained that the Eternal wished to lead the nation away from the despised service of sacrifices to false deities and substituted in its place the sacrificial service to the Eternal. But the Ramban, protesting loudly, poured scorn on these words of the Rambam.
However, our master explains that the chapter prohibiting an animal to be slaughtered outside the Tabernacle follows the chapter prescribing the service of the Day of Atonement precisely because the service of the Day of Atonement contained a new and strange ritual: sending the scapegoat to עזאזל, without having been brought inside the Sanctuary, to be killed in the desert, without the participation of either Priest or Levite, by an “איש עתי” (man in readiness). What is this service unto us (מה העבודה הזאת לנו)?
The commentators have already discussed this service, and expounded at length about it. The upshot of their discussions is that we offer the scapegoat as a propitiation of the עזאזל, so that the עזאזל would take his portion instead of ripping us asunder. Although we certainly have nothing to do with mysteries (אין לנו חלק בנסתרות), we may deduce from that portion which is in our hands [i.e., the revealed Torah] that the Torah has warned us that we may not infer, God forbid, from the service of the scapegoat that it would be permissible to offer a sacrifice to the satyrs on the altar. One might have reached this conclusion by arguing that the commandment to bring sacrifices only in the Tabernacle was restricted to the priests who are dedicated to the Eternal for they offer up sacrifices on the altar. It is, one might have supposed, only the priests who may not perform any service outside the Tabernacle. However, any ordinary Israelite (איש איש מבני ישראל) might, according to this reasoning, be permitted to bring a sacrifice to whomever his heart desired, just as the “איש עתי” )man in readiness) does with the scapegoat.
It was against such an argument that the Scripture is warning, because the guilt of one who offers such a sacrifice is too great to bear and he would be cut off from Israel. The Scripture then continues “ולא יזבחו עוד את זבחיהם לשעירים” (so they shall no more slay their sacrifices for satyrs) which means that they should perform no other practice like the service of the scapegoat, because God prescribed that this service be performed only on the Day of Atonement, and it is a secret hidden from us. And secrets are only for the Eternal (והנסתרות לה’). The subsequent words: “אשר הם זונים אחריהם” (after whom they play the harlot) is a reference to the satyrs, the demons, and the spirits that, as the Ramban wrote, desire these sacrifices. (שביבי אש)