Shemini: Mourning in Silence

March 28, 2013 at 12:58 pm | Posted in Shemini | Leave a comment

The death of someone close to you, even after a long illness, is hard to accept. A sudden death is like an earthquake.  But what if the sudden death came neither from an accident nor from a gun, but in a miraculous fire straight from God?

That is how Aaron’s two older sons die in this week’s Torah portion, Shemini (“Eighth”). Aaron and his four sons undergo an eight-day sanctification and ordination, along with the altar of the newly-assembled mikdash (“holy place”). At the conclusion of the ritual, a miraculous fire rushes out from the Holy of Holies and consumes everything on the altar. All the Israelites shout with joy and prostrate themselves. The five newly-ordained priests no doubt rejoice as well in this manifestation of God’s glory. Then Aaron’s older sons, Nadav and Avihu, grab their incense-burners and bring “strange fire” to God.  (See my earlier blog, “Shemini: Strange Fire”.) Another miraculous fire rushes out from the Holy of Holies and consumes them. But their bodies remain sufficiently intact for their cousins to drag them out of the sanctuary by their tunics.

Then Moses said to Aaron:  It is what God spoke, saying:  Through those close to me, I will be proven holy; and in the presence of all the people I will be glorified. And Aaron, vayidom. (Leviticus/Vayikra 10:3)

vayidom = he was silent; he was motionless. (Two other verbs from the same root, דּמם , mean “to wail” and “to be devastated”.)

Moses seems to be quoting God, but when did God say that?  The Babylonian Talmud points to part of God’s instructions about using the altar in the book of Exodus/Shemot:

I shall meet there with the Children of Israel, and it shall be made holy bikevodi. (Exodus/Shemot 29:43)

bikevodi = through My glory

Since early Hebrew writing had no vowels, the rabbis of the Talmud sometimes offered alternative readings of the words whose vowels later became codified. For this sentence, the Talmud suggests:

Do not read bikevodi [through My glory], but bikevodai [through My honored ones]. This is what the Holy One, blessed be He said to Moses, but they did not know its meaning until the sons of Aaron died. (Zavachim 115b)

In other words, God told Moses that the altar would be made holy through God’s nearest and dearest. (The Talmud does not address the question of  why the strange death of Nadav and Avihu counts as sanctification.) According to Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitchaki), Moses elaborated: “Aaron, my brother, I knew that this House would be sanctified by those who are cherished by God, and I thought it would be either through me or through you. Now I see that these [Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu] are greater than I and you.”

In this reading, Moses is assuring his brother Aaron that God did not kill his sons because they were unworthy; God killed his sons because they were so wonderful. This reminds me of when I was in first grade, and a Catholic friend of mine solemnly told me that the happiest day of her life would be when her husband died—because she knew he would go straight to heaven, and she knew she would be unselfish enough to rejoice. (I thought my friend was crazy.) But the religion in the Torah has no concept of an afterlife, except for vague references to an underworld called She-ol where nothing happens. Whatever Moses intends, he is not saying that God has suddenly rewarded Nadav and Avihu for their virtue by transporting their souls to heaven.

Most Jewish commentators agree that God is punishing rather than rewarding Nadav and Avihu. After all, the two men brought “strange fire” into the new Tent of Meeting without authorization, so they were guilty of at least careless over-enthusiasm, and at worst egotism and disdain for their elders. But did they deserve death for their mistake? The 18th-century rabbi Naphtali Herz Weisel wrote that while humans tend to be lenient with the people they love the most, God does the opposite: God overlooks a minor infraction committed by an ordinary person, but severely punishes even a tiny error by a leader who was divinely chosen.

The implication is that God’s killing of Nadav and Avihu  for making a small mistake proves that the two new priests were extraordinarily holy and close to God. This is how Moses tries to console Aaron. And Aaron responds to this attempt with silence. Some commentary says that Aaron was silent because he accepted Moses’ explanation. Indeed, I can imagine that if you were afraid your children had died committing a crime, it would be some comfort to know that they had only made a minor error in judgment, and they were good people at the end.

Other commentary brings in other possible meanings of vayidom.  In the 15th century, Isaac Abravanel wrote that Aaron was not consoled; he wailed at first, then became silent and motionless as his heart turned to stone. Modern commentators add that Aaron was in shock; we might say his soul was “devastated”.

And Aaron’s silence continues. In the Torah, the acceptable response to the death of a family member is to wail, tear your clothing, and untie your hair. You are supposed to show your grief in public. But before Aaron, or his two younger sons, Elazar and Itamar, can begin to dishevel themselves, Moses stops them.

Moses said to Aaron, and to his sons Elazar and Itamar:  Don’t let the hair hang loose on your heads, and don’t tear your clothes; then you will not die, nor will God become furious at the whole community.  But your brothers, all the house of Israel, will bewail the burning that God burned. And do not go out of the opening of the Tent of Meeting, lest you die, for the oil of anointing of God is upon you.  And they did as Moses spoke. (Leviticus 10:5-7)

Everyone in the whole camp of Israel is expected to mourn for Nadav and Avihu—except for the three surviving anointed priests. Later in the book of Leviticus, in chapter 21, a high priest is forbidden to grow his hair long, tear his garments, or come near any dead body. The other priests may engage in mourning practices, but only for their closest family members (including sons and brothers), and only when they are not on duty. However, this exception does not apply to the newly anointed Elazar and Itamar. Since they are not allowed to leave the opening of the Tent of Meeting, they are like high priests, unable to go off-duty.

Other ancient religions in the region had priests who specialized in serving and summoning the dead. But for the priests of the Israelites, any contact with the dead was a contamination, making them unable to do their jobs until they had been purified. True, their jobs included a great deal of contact with dead animals, not to mention diagnoses of skin diseases. Nevertheless, it was important for priests to inspire the people to become “holy”, to worship God with joy as well as devotion. In order to do this, priests were expected to look joyful and devout as they served God, no matter what they felt inside.

20th-century rabbi Elie Munk went further, and wrote that the priests had to maintain a joyful state of mind in order to give blessings to the people. They could not let themselves mourn on either the outside or the inside.

Today we would call that going into denial. Yet it remains true that there are times when we must all rise to the occasion, pretending to be more serene than we feel inside, in order to do some important job—maybe to take care of someone else in need. The danger lies in always being “on”—never leaving the opening of the tent of meeting.

May we all be blessed with both the strength to rise above our feelings at times, in order to serve others, and the strength to remove ourselves from service at times, in order to do the mourning we need for our own souls.


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