Titus in the Temple
Leviticus presents the story of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, who “each took his censer, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered unholy fire (lit. strange fire) before the Lord, such as he had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord” (Leviticus 10:1-2, NRSV). Chapter 20 of Leviticus Rabbah addresses the deaths of Nadav and Avihu and, especially, examines whether there is a similarity between the fates of the wicked and the righteous. Some sections in this chapter present Aaron’s sons as flawless and provide examples of righteous individuals who lost their sons; by contrast, other sections ascribe specific sins to Nadav and Avihu that might explain their deaths. The section cited above opens with a comparison between this pair of Aaron’s sons and his staff, then continues by drawing a contrast between them and Titus the wicked, who entered the Holy of Holies (the most sacred area within the Temple).
Section A compares Aaron’s sons – Nadav and Avihu – to his staff. In Scripture, Aaron’s staff was placed in the tent of the covenant as part of God’s response after the challenge to the leadership of Moses and Aaron (and especially their privileges in the tabernacle) posed by Korah and his followers. During that dispute, God instructs Moses to collect the staff of the leader of each tribe and to place them in the sanctuary, in an effort to publicly demonstrate which tribe is eligible for that distinctive status: “Moses placed the staffs before the Lord in the tent of the covenant. When Moses went into the tent of the covenant on the next day, the staff of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted. It put forth buds, produced blossoms and bore ripe almonds” (Numbers 17:7-8, NRSV = Numbers 17:22-23, JPS). In contrast to this version of the midrash, in which God liken Aaron's staff to his sons, other manuscripts make this comparison to Job. Irrespective of the version, this image is stark, for the staff was found full of life and the sons were burned, thus suggesting injustice.
At that point (B), the midrash goes on to compare Aaron’s sons to Titus, who violated the most restricted section of the Temple. Titus is not associated with his role in the destruction of the Temple (following the Great Jewish revolt in 66-70 CE), but rather for the sin of entering the site that could only be accessed by one man on one day each year – the Jewish high priest on the Day of Atonement – and for committing blasphemy by tearing of the Temple’s curtains, which separated the holy area from the sanctum of the Holy of Holies. In contrast to the parallel sources, this version describes one curtain rather than two (see: Mekhilta Deuteronomy 32:37-38; Sifre Deuteronomy 327-328; Genesis Rabbah 10:7; Leviticus Rabbah 22:3). It is noteworthy that Mishnah Yoma 5:1 presents a disagreement between Rabbi Yose and the majority of sages over whether the Second Temple had one or two curtains. Titus enters the sanctum of the Holy of Holies and slashes the curtain with his sword, which “came out full of blood.” According to Joshua Levinson, with that sword, Titus is “brandishing the symbol of Roman identity” (Levinson, “Tragedies Naturally Performed,” p. 369), thus emphasizing the power that Roman exerts over other nations. The phrase “He entered in peace and exited in peace” alludes to Tosefta Hagigah 2:3-4, which describes four sages who entered pardes (the divine realm); among them, only Rabbi Akiba ascended in peace and descended in peace. Additionally, Mishnah Yoma 7:4 states that the High Priest would sponsor a celebration for “those who love him” after he peacefully exited the sanctum of the Holy of Holies following the Day of Atonement to mark his safe return. The midrash being considered here uses similar language to describe Titus’s peaceful exit after cutting the curtain. This word choice emphasizes the injustice, for only a select few could enter and emerge in peace from the holy realm. This description also underscores the difference between Titus and Aaron’s sons, who were burned before the Lord at the tent of the covenant, and the profound disparity in their treatment: the lack of punishment for Titus and the extreme measure against Aaron’s sons. Unlike Leviticus Rabbah 22:3, where Titus eventually acknowledges God's power, this midrash conveys neither a divine response to Titus’s sin nor acknowledgment of God's authority by Titus; rather, his sin passes without consequence.
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