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4.13.2018 Weekly Torah Portion

PostPosted: Fri Apr 13, 2018 6:32 pm
by RabbiMark
How do we respond in the face of tragedy?

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shemini (meaning: The Eighth Day), we read the troubling and tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu.

After the Israelites have spent weeks building the Mishkan, the Holy dwelling place for God’s presence to reside, it is dedicated with seven days of final preparations.

On the eighth day, in order to consecrate the altar, God’s fire comes down and burns Aaron’ sacrifice. Seeing this display of God’s might and acceptance, all of Israel erupts in joy. Caught up in the mix and the revelry, Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, decide on their own to bring a “strange fire” into the Holy of Holies.
The text reads:

And a fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; and they died before God. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what God meant when He said, ‘Through those near to me I show Myself holy and gain glory before all the people.’” And Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10:2-3)

The rabbinic Midrash adds detail to their deaths: God issued two flames of fire from the Holy of Holies, as thin as threads, which parted into four. Two threads penetrated the nostrils of Nadav and two threads to Avihu, burning only their souls but leaving no trace of external injury on their bodies.

The celebration suddenly turns sour. Aaron, the boys’ father, is completely shocked and is at a loss for words.

Over the years, many commentators have tried to explain God’s justice in this story. Some possible explanations are that Nadav and Avihu were:

• Drunk when they entered the Holy of Holies.
• Not wearing the appropriate Priestly garments.
• Negligent in that they didn’t wash themselves according to the proscribed method.
• Arrogant, trying to usurp the power and authority of Moses and Aaron.

However, what strikes me most is Aaron’s silence.

What could the Torah be suggesting by noting Aaron’s demeanor?
Was he holding back his rage?
Was it an acceptance of God’s decree?
Was Aaron’s silence a way to signify his reservations to continuing the functions of High Priest?

As the father of a boy who is almost 20 months old, my greatest fear is that my son loses his life right before my eyes (God forbid). Even writing these words brings on a heavy and dark reaction in my body. Suddenly, my thoughts begin to spiral...

What if he runs into the street and gets hit by a car?
What if he falls on his head and breaks his neck?
What if he climbs over the fence at the zoo and is attacked by an animal?
What if…
What if…
What if...

I know it’s not a healthy exercise to engage in but isn’t that part of being a parent? Is this not what all parents do - worry about the health and safety of their children? If I dwell in these thoughts, it can become crippling and prevent me from doing anything I am responsible for.
Maybe that’s what Aaron was experiencing. Paralyzing silence.

In his commentary on Shimini Rabbi Eliezer Diamond notes:

How difficult it must have been for Aaron to serve God in the very place where that same God had taken the lives of two of his children. Aaron continued his holy work, but there was some part of him that was now silent, that did not turn to God in prayer and praise as it did in the past. The fire that killed Aaron's sons had wounded him profoundly as well. (http://www.jtsa.edu/aarons-silence, 04/09/10)

Despite Aaron’s potential reluctance, he forges on with his duties.

Moses instructs him not to rend his clothes and not to mourn for his sons’ deaths, rather to allow the Children of Israel to mourn in his place. Moses reminds Aaron that he is still tasked with the role of High Priest, and leadership must continue to perform their responsibilities lest more chaos ensue.

Seeing Aaron’s silence and his dedication to continuing the task at hand gives me a sense of strength and an example of what to strive for when life gets difficult.

The journey to the promised land requires perseverance in the face of tragedy.
Aaron’s reaction to personal tragedy shows us a powerful example that grief and mourning are necessary; but as difficult as it might be, we must never stop the struggle to pursue the next right action. We must continue to perform the holy work we are put on this earth to do.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbinic Intern
Joseph Shamash