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  • Writer's pictureJosh Scharff

Parashat Shmini and Grieving

So many of us have had reason to mourn over the past six plus months. The loss of life, our sense of security, friends who we found out did not truly love us or our community - there is no shortage of causes. In Parashat Shmini the Torah tells a story that speaks directly to the human experience of mourning. 

Aaron, Moses’ brother, had four sons. They were tapped, together with their father, to be the first priests of Israel serving the entire nation in their work worshiping and honoring God. After the mishkan is established, Moses engages Aaron and his sons in an extravagant ceremony marking this tremendous effort. The new priests are consecrated and several sacrifices are made. The last step in the process of their ordination is that Aaron and his sons will stay for seven nights inside of the mishkan.  

Shmini opens on the eighth day as Aaron and his sons emerge from the mishkan. More sacrifices are made on behalf of the priests and also on behalf of the entire nation. Aaron and Moses bless the people and depart the Tent of Meeting. Then the story plays out as follows:

Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before GOD alien fire—which had not been enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from GOD and consumed them; thus they died by GOD’s will. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what GOD meant by saying: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.” And Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10:1-3) 

Nadav and Avihu, two of Aaron’s sons are taken by God for the sin of offering esh zarah - alien fire before God. In a moment, the experience of great fanfare, celebration and triumph for Aaron - both national and personal - comes crashing to a heart wrenching and terrible end. Now you may be asking, ‘what does offering alien fire before God and how could that possibly have marked these young men for death?’ You are not alone. Generations of rabbis struggled with this very question and I highly recommend reading further on the subject. 

Yet I want to focus on the responses of the Israelites at this moment. How do the people around Aaron react? How do they mourn? 

I read three distinct reactions to this tragedy. The first is Moses’ reaction. He says immediately to his brother ‘I can explain why this happened.’ Ever the statesman, he is quick to explain, even justify, God’s actions. He rushes to find the lesson in what has happened. There is little warmth in his words. Yet, as leader of the nation, he is stuck between love for his brother and his commitment to maintaining a strong and stable relationship between the Israelite nation and God. 

The second reaction is that of the nation. In verse six of the same chapter it is written, “But your kin, all the house of Israel, shall bewail the burning that GOD has wrought.” The Israelites collectively weep and mourn the death of Nadav and Avihu. Their reaction is emotional, physical, visible. They are overcome with grief at their loss and do not hide the depth of their sadness. There are no explanations or reasoning, just the pain of loss and of lives cut too short. 

The third and truly gut wrenching reaction is that of Aaron himself. In Hebrew it is written va’yidom Aharon, which translates to “and Aaron was silent”. Aaron the father has just lost two of the things most precious to him in this world. In his shock and grief he cannot verbalize his pain, he cannot cry. He was silent. 

The Torah presents three very different reactions to the sudden and tragic deaths of beloved sons and members of the community. Moses’s stately explanations that all is according to God’s precepts and plans, the Israelites collective spasm of physical and public grief, and Aaron’s shock and silence. 

Any human being who has mourned a loss will immediately recognize each of these, because we have all reacted in similar ways. The Torah, in a beautiful lesson, is effectively telling us that there is no one correct way to mourn, to experience our grief. It reminds us that every individual will react differently in the face of loss and, simultaneously, that one is not inherently superior to the other. Sometimes we need to scream. At others we need to hear reassurances, the platitudes we say to one and other when we lose someone precious. And there are times where there are simply no words, where shock and grief overcome and paralyze us. 

The Torah teaches us in this portion that all of these reactions are a part of us, of being human. The challenge is, at least for me, remembering and reminding ourselves that all of them are ok at every moment - to let ourselves scream at times and be silent at others. 

There have been so many reasons to mourn since October 7th. Even though the pain and the fear is ongoing, we must not push off acknowledging it and feeling it along the way. Mourn, grieve, scream, justify, sit silently - just feel it. It is the only way that we will be able to keep going as we navigate this extremely complex chapter of our individual and collective histories. 

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