Commentary on Parashat Shmini, Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47, Numbers 19:1 - 22
I received a strange birthday gift a few years back–a book on mourning that was full of guidance for coping with the loss of a loved one. A kind gesture, to be sure; however, since no one I knew had died, the book was shelved. And until reading this week’s Torah portion, that is where it remained.
Parashat Shmini recounts a story of tragic loss, the punishment by death of Aaron‘s son’s, Nadav and Avihu, who “…offered before the Lord an alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them,” and who were then consumed by fire that “came forth from God” (Leviticus 10:1-2). Though Moses makes an attempt to explain God’s actions, Aaron’s response is one of silence.
The Experience of Loss
Reading of this encounter with tragedy, I had a multitude of questions regarding the experience of loss and the attempts by loved ones to provide comfort. Through exploring these questions, I began to understand my strange birthday gift. For, though a mourner feels sadness, fear, anger, guilt, and pain, so does one trying to live life fully.
I came to realize that the book on mourning was in part an instruction manual not on confronting death, but on experiencing life deeply. And the story of Nadav and Avihu, through what is not explained, invites the reader to examine the timeless issues of both life and death.
Throughout the ages, this story has generated countless commentaries that ponder what great sin could warrant such a divine act of severe retribution. The answers include failure to comply with ritual laws or to consult with their elders, ruthless ambition, haughtiness, lack of faith, and excessive religious zeal. Other explanations point to unsanctioned innovation, God’s wish to have the brothers closer to Him, their entering the sanctuary drunk, and their refusing to marry. Finally, some commentators believed that Nadav and Avihu died for their father’s sin in agreeing to make the Golden Calf.
Although these various interpretations are fascinating, I will focus on how Moses and Aaron responded to this tragedy and what we can learn today from their very different reactions. In addressing his brother, Moses attempted to justify God’s killing of Aaron’s sons: “Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the Lord meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.'” In response, “…Aaron was silent” (Leviticus 10:3).
At this point, I was angry with Moses. Why did he speak these words–were they what Aaron needed to hear? Did Moses imagine that his words, while well-intentioned, really would console his grieving brother? And though Moses’ words may have contained truth, were they able to access both what Moses knew and what he felt? Indeed, what was he feeling in this moment, or did he consciously choose not to feel? And if Moses did have an emotional as well as a rational response, for whom was it–himself? Aaron? The entire community?
What of Aaron’s response? What was going through his mind, and how do we interpret his silence? Did he believe Moses’ words, and was he consoled by them? Would Aaron’s heart and mind have found peace from Rabbi Akiva’s teaching that, “All that the Almighty does is for the good?” Perhaps Aaron suppressed his grief for the sake of God, or for the sake of communal peace, or perhaps he was in such shock that he couldn’t find his voice. It’s possible that had Aaron not been silenced by Moses’ words, and had Moses responded to this tragedy differently, Aaron might have been able to access and express his grief.
But by not being told why Aaron remains silent, we are free to use the Torah as a mirror to wrestle with our inner responses and understandings of his loss. In personally identifying with Aaron, I felt incensed over the denial of my grief. Should I rejoice rather than grieve? To do so would be to disown my real feelings in the face of inconceivable loss. I would have wished for a more compassionate response from my brother.
Today, tragedy surrounds us. As in times past, we look to our leaders for guidance. When a group of Jewish leaders recently was asked to list the qualities they most valued in a leader, compassion was near the top. Rudolph Guiliani was lauded for both his strength and his palpable display of compassion in response to the tragic events of September 11th.
Many of us watched Howard Lutnick, the CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald, break down in sobs as he spoke of the pain he felt for the families of his employees lost in the World Trade Center inferno. Through witnessing his searing grief, I began to truly feel the tragedy that had befallen us. No one thought that he was acting inappropriately or that he should, “pull himself together” and model strength for his employees. Instead, he modeled what it is to be a human being, to feel life in all of its rawness and all of its awesomeness.
We must make a place for grief in our communal lives, not merely behind closed doors. Judaism understands this and facilitates such expression. The community comes together in a house of mourning in part to provide a safe place for mourners to feel and speak of their pain. We rend our clothing because it is important to be mourners, rather than to just get back to “business as usual.” This external act of rending reflects an internal violence, the rending of one’s heart.” All garments must be rent opposite the heart…for the mourner has to expose his heart” (Kitzur Shulkhan Arukh –Abridged Code of Jewish Law) 195:3-4).
Though I felt angry with Moses, I also felt a strong identification with him. How many of us also respond with words to the inconsolable grief of a friend who has lost a loved one? Because we may fully believe that no sense can be made of tragedy, and that no words will truly provide comfort, we often find it exceptionally difficult to refrain from speaking.
The Talmud, understanding the danger of doing so, counsels us against trying to comfort someone immediately after they have suffered a loss, “when the dead body is still before them” (Tractate Mo’ed Katan). And as we learn from the Book of Job, people entering a house of mourning should refrain from speaking until the mourner initiates conversation (Job 2:11-3:1). Grief counselors well understand that the most supportive role they can play is that of a compassionate listener. Yet Moses doesn’t even give Aaron a chance to speak, and his words may have made any verbal response impossible.
The mystery surrounding the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, as well as Moses’ and Aaron’s responses to their deaths, provide rich material through which we can explore our own relationship to death, grief, consolation, and the nature of life. So, I think I’ll hang out with this birthday book a bit longer.
Provided by the UJA-Federation of New York, which cares for those in need, strengthens Jewish peoplehood, and fosters Jewish renaissance.
Sign up for a Journey Through Grief & Mourning: Whether you have lost a loved one recently or just want to learn the basics of Jewish mourning rituals, this 8-part email series will guide you through everything you need to know and help you feel supported and comforted at a difficult time.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.