Parashat Shemini Torah Reading: Leviticus 9:1-11:47
One of the facets of Judaism that I value most is our tradition's engagement in real life. We are not encouraged to view the world through rose-colored glasses. The protagonists of our Torah are not a group of paragons: they are human beings who display faith, avarice, hypocrisy, courage and weakness. During their lives they endure barrenness, imprisonment, persecution, famine and the death of loved ones. When we are encouraged to look to the Torah for wisdom and guidance and insight we are being sent to a sacred text that understands the lives we lead.
This week's parashah includes one of the Torah's most painful passages: the death of Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu. The account of their death is puzzling and much rabbinic ink has been spilt in the effort to understand why these two young men lost their lives.
What is not as frequently examined is the fact that their father, Aaron, has endured the death of two of his sons.
The Torah relates that Aaron stood in silence in response to their deaths. We speculate on this response: why does Aaron not cry out? why does Aaron not collapse in grief?
The modern biblical commentator, Joseph Hertz wrote:
According to ancient Jewish custom the ceremony of cutting our garments, when our nearest and dearest on earth is lying dead before us, is to be performed standing up. This teaches us to meet all sorrow standing upright. The future may be dark, veiled from the eyes of mortals--but not the manner in which we are to meet the future. To rail at life, to rebel against a destiny that has cast our lines in unpleasant places, is of little avail. We cannot lay down terms to life. Life must be accepted on its own terms. But hard as life's terms are, life (it has been finely said) never dictates unrighteousness, unholiness, dishonor.
Rather than interpret Aaron's silence as indifference, Rabbi Hertz helps us to appreciate the depth of Aaron's response in loss as righteousness, holiness and honor.
This insight also encourages us to be sensitive to the mourners among us. Those who have suffered the loss of loved ones look "normal" on the outside, just like Aaron. They go to work or school, they go food shopping and they dust their coffee tables . . . but all the while there may be a turmoil of loss surrounding their hearts. People of faith may blame God for their loss or they look to God for strength as they endure their loss . . . or they may do both. We can't tell any of that by looking.
So look around you and consider the mourners in your circle of family and friends. Be gentle. Reach out and provide companionship. Long after the shiva week is over.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.