“Rebbi Chiya bar Aba asks, “The sons of Aharon died on Rosh Chodesh Nison so why is their death mentioned when the Torah speaks of Yom Kippur?” (The answer) “To teach us that just like Yom Kippur atones so too the death of tzadikim atones.” (The Medrash asks another question), “And how do we know that Yom Kippur atones? (The answer) Since it says, ‘because on that day (Yom Kippur) Hashem will pardon and forgive you…” (Medrash asks another question) “And how do we know that the death of tzadikim atones? (The answer) As it says (Shemuel 2 – 21/14), “And they buried the bones of Shaul … and Hashem accepted the prayers of the inhabitants of the Land “(Medrash Rabah Vayikra 20/12)”
Zera Shimshon asks that in the beginning of this selection the Medrash established that the death of tzadikim atones. Why then at the end, does the Medrash ask again how do we know that the death of tzadikim atone? We know why already; from the fact that the death of Aharon’s children are mentioned in the parsha that speaks of Yom Kippur!
Secondly, why does that Medrash bring a different possuk, “And they buried the bones of Shaul… “, to prove this point?
He answers that the second time Medrash asks “And how do we know that the death of tzadikim atones?” is not to be taken at face value. The Medrash is not asking simply how do we know that the death of tzadikim atones. Rather the Medrash is questioning the logic of learning that the death of tzadikim atones from the atonement of Yom Kippur.
Meaning, Zera Shimshon proves (in a previous d’var Torah) that a person who does teshuva out of fear of punishment (rather than out of love) is not completely atoned until Yom Kippur comes and completes the cleansing process. In other words, the tremendous power of Yom Kippur is that it completes the teshuva process for someone who did teshuva out of fear. However before the person has started the teshuva process Yom Kippur does not atone for that person’s wrongdoings.
According to this we can now understand the Medrash. The Medrash asks, how can we learn that the the death of a tzadik atones from the fact that Yom Kippur atones? Tzaddikim die beacuse of the sins of the generation. Therefore, if the generation already did teshuva out of fear then the tzadik wouldn’t died. If they didn’t do teshuva then how can the death of the tzadik atone for them! (if the source of it being an atonement is learnt from Yom Kippur.)
(The possibility that the death of tzadikim completes the teshuva process retroactively Zera Shimshon discounts simply as nonsensical!)
The Medrash answers in light of the possuk “And they buried the bones of Shaul … and Hashem accepted the prayers of the inhabitants of the Land “. After Shaul died there was a drought and famine for three years. Surely, explains Zera Shimshon, they did teshuva during that time (out of fear that Hashem will continue to withhold rain). Even so, Hashem didn’t forgive them until they buried the bones of Shaul. When a corpse is relocated and buried it is like the person “re-died” (to such a degree that the children have the status of being a mourner!)
Therefore, concludes the Medrash, we learn that the death of tzadikim atones (after one does teshuva out of fear) just like Yom Kippur!
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