Faith in the Face of Loss

Shemini By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Apr 6, 2002 / 5762 | Torah Commentary

Death in old age is sad but not tragic. The pain of loved ones left behind is tempered by the knowledge that this is the way of the world. Thus King David on his deathbed instructs Solomon, his son, soberly: “I am going the way of all the earth; be strong and show yourself a man” (I Kings 2:2). There is no reason to protest. The loss will take resolve to overcome, but the naturalness of the death holds its own comfort.

That is not the case with a life extinguished prematurely. The unnaturalness of early death intensifies our grief. Parents should not have to bury their children. What goes against the natural order of things drives us to distraction. So much promise unfulfilled, so many joys beyond reach.

Such is Aaron’s fate on the day of his entry into office. The Tabernacle was about to be inaugurated as God’s earthly residence. A divine fire had just issued from inside the Tent of Meeting to consume Aaron’s burnt offering on the altar, signaling not only God’s favor but also the fact that the cult’s fire was not of human origin. At this long-awaited moment of divine-human reconciliation, Nadab and Abihu, two of Aaron’s four sons, misstepped. Overcome with envy or enthusiasm, they intruded into the unfolding drama with a fire of their own making. But this time the fire from the Tent shot forth to incinerate them both, turning triumph into tragedy with brutal suddenness.

A sharp reprimand by Moses must surely have aggravated Aaron’s state of shock:
Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, 
And gain glory before all the people (10:3).

In the face of such calamity, Aaron’s only response was one of silence: “And Aaron was silent”—perhaps the most pregnant silence in all of Scripture. Was his the silence of submission or of an anguish too great to voice? When David’s vain and rebellious son, Absalom, was ignominiously killed in flight, his father gave full vent to his grief: “My son Absalom! O my son, my son Absalom. If only I had died instead of you! O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 19:1). But from Aaron not even a shriek, though his loss was twice as grievous.

Edvard Munch’s signature painting of 1893, “The Scream”, comes to mind. A gaunt figure on a bridge with his face contorted in horror and hands clasped to his ears trembles in the midst of a cosmic scream, suggested by a wavy landscape in deep colors. Munch wrote of the experience that lay behind the art:

I walked one evening on a road—on the one side was the town and the fjord below me. I was tired and ill — I stood looking out across the fjord — the sun was setting — the clouds were colored red — like blood — I felt as though a scream went through nature — I thought I heard a scream. I painted this picture — painted the clouds like real blood. The colors were screaming.

This is how I picture Aaron standing over his fallen sons, appalled and petrified by the chaos that had engulfed the Tabernacle.

How do we avoid going over the edge? Many centuries after Aaron, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, who in the decades after the destruction of the Second Temple reestablished Judaism on the basis of a book, also lost a son. He had a cohort of five outstanding students, who would become the teachers of Torah in the next generation. Each one visited Rabban Yohanan to comfort him in his grief. The first four took the same tack, recounting one of several biblical stories in which a father lost one or more children and yet did not weep unconsolably, from Adam to Job to Aaron to David. As each of these figures regained his balance by permitting himself to be consoled, so should Rabban Yohanan. But each time he refused to find relief in the misery of others: “Is it not enough that I grieve over my own, that thou remindest me of the grief of another?”

Finally, Rabbi Eleazer ben Arakh entered and sat down before his teacher. “I shall tell thee a parable: to what may this be likened? To a man with whom the king deposited some object. Every single day the man would weep and cry out, saying: ‘Woe unto me! When shall I be quit of this trust in peace?’ Thou too, master, thou hadst a son: He studied the Torah, the Prophets, the Holy Writings, he studied Mishnah, Halakhah, Aggadah, and he departed from the world without sin. And thou shouldst be comforted when thou hast returned thy trust unimpaired.”

Said Rabban Yohanan to him: “Rabbi Eleazer, my son, thou has comforted me the way people should give comfort!” (The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan, translated by Judah Goldin, 76-77.)

More than a millennium later, this soothing tale provided great comfort to Glückel of Hameln when she lost her three-year old daughter Mate. Born in Hamburg in 1646, she began to write her justly famous memoir in 1690 after the death of her first husband Hayyim of Hameln “to drive away the melancholy that comes with the long nights.” They had married when Glückel was fourteen and in the following thirty years, she bore a child practically every two years. Remarkably, of her thirteen children everyone except Mate lived to be married. Mate’s death afflicted Glückel and Hayyim with a grief beyond solace to the point that both of them fell gravely ill. In her struggle against despair, she alighted gratefully on the story of R. Yohanan ben Zakkai. Years later she would record the wisdom she garnered from her trauma.

All of us suffer bitter losses, but far from helping us, grief and mourning only harm our body and weaken our soul. And no one depressed in body can worship God as he should. When the prophets of old invited the spirit of the Lord to come on them, they played the tambour, pipe and harp to rejoice their limbs, for the spirit of the Lord is slow to come on the sick in body.

In the final analysis, it is an unshaken belief in providence that keeps us from going mad. The world is not without a maker nor our lives without a purpose. As long as that framework holds, we can endure the tests that come our way. Faith fills in where our understanding falters. When Job received news of the act of nature that snuffed out the lives of all his children, he was crazed with anguish. He tore his robe, sheared his hair and threw himself on the ground. But he also mustered the composure to pray: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21). Ritual kept chaos at bay. And to this day, Jews recite the words of Job — “the Lord has given and the Lord has taken away” — as they rend a garment before the start of a funeral service. A single all-encompassing and caring God permits us to rage even as we are obliged to praise. Aaron’s silence is not a virtue.

Shabbat Shalom.

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Sh’mini are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.