This week’s d’var Torah on parshat Shemini.
Though I was very proactive about reading the Torah portion early in the week (go me!), it got to Friday afternoon before I even began to write this d’var Torah. Some of that is due to quarantine brain, but some of it is due to the fact that there was no way to give a sermon on this week’s Torah portion—and our current conditions—without talking about death.
As a small congregational rabbi, I’m fortunate to maybe do only three to five funerals a year (up the street they might have that many in a week). Now we’ve had three deaths in the congregation in the last two weeks: one member, two parents of members. One died from COVID-19, two died from other causes. One was buried in a small graveside service with shiva online, two have had their funerals indefinitely postponed. None of them are able to mourn their loved ones as they might have imagined prior to this pandemic.
The rituals surrounding death are probably the most detailed in the Jewish tradition. How the body is prepared, when the burial takes place, what customs the mourner and their community must follow on each day of the year following the death of a loved one. Sometimes these details can be a burden. Sometimes they are a lifeline. (Even in my own family, I know that my brothers saw them as the former while my mother and I saw them as the latter). But in this strange new world we are living, we are denied the gentle rhythm that Judaism provides to walk us through the valley of the shadow of death.
Turning to our Torah portion for comfort—or perhaps distraction—proved fruitless, as parashat Shemini also involves sudden death under strange circumstances, and the interruption of traditional mourning rituals. When Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, newly ordained as priests, offer “strange fire” before God, they are immediately consumed in fire. Because Aaron and his remaining sons have already been consecrated as priests, they are not permitted to interact with the bodies, or leave the Tent of Meeting to participate in mourning rites.
We read in Leviticus chapter 10 (1-7): “And Aaron was silent. … And Moses said to Aaron and to his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, “Do not bare your heads and do not rend your clothes, lest you die and anger strike the whole community. But your kinsmen, all the house of Israel, shall bewail the burning that the Eternal has wrought. And so do not go outside the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, lest you die, for the Eternal’s anointing oil is upon you.”
Why, in this terrifying moment, is Aaron silent? And why are he and his sons not permitted to mourn?
11th century commentator Rashi says that it is a sign of Aaron’s moral strength that he does not protest or complain about his sons’ deaths. According to 19th century Rabbi Eliezar Lipman Lichtenstein, that the word used for silence here, vayidom, has a particular connotation of “inner peace and calmness of spirit…. His heart was at peace and his spirit calm even internally; he did not question God’s ways, but accepted God’s decree” (The Heart of Torah, Vol 2, p. 32).
I was so frustrated by these theories that I might have written an expletive in the margins of the book I found them in. Rabbi Shai Held seems to agree with me: “Would shedding a tear or emitting a cry really have constituted a crime against God—or betrayed less-than-perfect faith?” (The Heart of Torah, Vol 2, p. 32).
16th century rabbi Isaac Abravanel offers a different opinion: “Aaron’s heart turned to lifeless stone. He did not weep and mourn like a bereaved father, nor did he accept Moses’ attempts to console him, for his soul had left him and he was speechless.” Contemporary biblical scholar Baruch Levine suggests that vayidom does not mean silence at all, but rather an uncontrollable mourning or moaning, because “the agony of a father upon the loss of his children is irrepressible” (The Heart of Torah, Vol 2, pp. 32-33).
Whatever the nature of Aaron’s reactions, Moses responds in two ways: offering a theological explanation of the incident, and giving strict instructions as to how they will move forward. This was probably not the most thoughtful or compassionate response. At the very least, it was premature. The Jewish tradition teaches us to make space for silence and/or moaning in those first raw moments of encountering the bereaved. Rav Papa tells us that “The primary reward for attending a house of mourning is for the silence, which is the optimal manner for those consoling the mourners to express their empathy” (Berachot 6b). Rabbi Yochanan instructs us that, like the friends of Job, who sat in silence with him for seven days, “The consolers are not permitted to speak words of consolation until the mourner opens and speaks first” (Moed Katan 28b).
But often, in our own discomfort with death, we neglect to do that. Rabbi Held writes, “Especially when death is untimely, or sudden, or traumatic, people often visit shivah homes and end up (usually unconsciously) trying to assuage their own anxieties instead of comforting—or just sitting with—the mourners” (The Heart of Torah, Vol 2, p. 34). As someone who cringes when people ask if my dad was a smoker, I’m hyper-aware that many of us respond to COVID-19 deaths by asking about the victim’s exposure and vulnerability, desperate to differentiate it from our own. We want to know that it can’t happen to us or those we love. But it can. It does.
Rabbi Jordie Gerson writes that “Aaron’s silent response is a form of wisdom. Aaron’s silence is its own sort of proclamation that there is never a good reason, theologically or otherwise, for tragic deaths, of Nadav and Avihu, or those dying of Covid, or those killed in the Shoah. There is no theology, no logic, no moral or religious calculus that can explain a tragedy of these proportions. And to attempt to make meaning of it – right now, when we are in the weeds, when we are in the midst of so much loss and suffering and death – makes a mockery of the suffering of the ill and dying, and especially of those bereaved left behind.”
Our first response to grief must be to make space for the silence and the moaning, to simply be present, even if, in these circumstances, we must do so from a distance. And when it is finally time to speak, what do we say? Rabbi Gerson suggests, “You are not alone.” When my father was dying, I noticed a shift in what I would say to my mom when she cried. Historically, our family is not good at making space to express painful emotions. At my paternal grandfather’s shiva, my grandmother snapped at my mother to stop crying. So I stopped saying, “You’re okay. It’s okay,” the way I’d been taught to do when kids fall down. It wasn’t okay. It still isn’t okay. Instead, I started saying, “I’m here. I’m here.”
Probably the hardest thing about navigating this time as a rabbi is that I’ve realized that about 80% of what I do that’s useful is non-verbal. A gentle smile, putting a hand on a shoulder, offering a hug, sitting side by side. Most of it is really about showing up. I think that’s true for all of us. And now we need to find new ways of doing that.
Whether that is calling to check in or writing a note, joining a virtual gathering or safely placing a care package on someone’s front steps, we can still be present for one another. Sarah Hurwitz describes a community that made two lines of cars in the temple parking lot so that the mourners could drive through them, the way they might have walked through a receiving line at the graveside. She writes that “everyone waved and blew kisses at them as they passed by, each in their separate cars, but together in their grief and love, reaching out their hands, none of them alone.”
And while this is something our mourners’ need especially, it is also something all of us need in right now. Even if we have not suffered this most difficult of losses, we are each mourning the loss of normalcy, the loss of events we were looking forward to, the loss of everyday interactions with loved ones and strangers. We need human connection, even from a distance, to remind us that even though we are isolated, we are not alone.
The world is sitting shiva. And whether we are apart or together, we are not alone. We called to be present with one another, to sit with each other in our brokenness and our grief, to hold each other in our hearts if not in our hands. We are called make space for the silence and the moaning, and to respond, simply, “I’m here.”
Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz