Included in the Levitical census is the fact that Aaron’s eldest two sons had died earlier (see Leviticus 10:2) as a result of their sin. Consequently, it was Elazar and Itamar who served as priests following their father Aaron. Yet the verse that conveys this information is difficult.
The last phrase “al p’nei Aharon avihem” – in the presence of Aaron their father – is positioned after the clause that states how Elazar and Itamar succeeded Aaron while Aaron is still alive. This, in fact, is the way almost every medieval commentator understands the verse. Hence, the new JPS English translation renders the last half of the verse: “So it was Elazar and Itamar who served as priests in the lifetime of their father Aaron.” If this is correct, it would be an historical anomaly since no more than one high priest served in the Temple at any one time. And a new high priest was anointed only after the death of the current one!
The sole exegete who was struck by this difficulty was Nahmanides who propose that the last phrase be transposed to the beginning of the verse thereby indicating not that Elazar and Itamar ministered during Aaron’s lifetime, but that Nadav and Avihu – Aarons’ two oldest sons – died during Aaron’s lifetime. This is, it would appear, the way the Book of Chronicles (I Chronicles 24;2) understands this verse as well.
It seems an insignificant point but what the alternative readings of this verse are really doing is addressing the question of what is worse for a parent to endure? Is it worse for a parent to see himself or herself outdistance and overshadowed by a child in the same field as a parent? Or is it worse for a parent to endure the trauma and pain of the death of a child? According to most commentators, there is nothing worse for a parent than being eclipsed by a child. Perhaps this is one reason why Jewish law precludes a child from being called up to the Torah after his father. Embarrassing and hurtful comparisons (“The child read better than the father!”) must be avoided. Yet according to Nahmanides, there is nothing worse for a parent than outliving a child which is both contrary to nature and to human expectations. This is why the Torah includes this information in the census: there is never a time when the grief disappears or when the sad truth can be overlooked.
No matter which interpretation is correct, the fact is that Aaron persevered. He continued to function and to serve his people despite his personal pain. It is a lesson for all.