In the Wake of Tragedy
In the immediate wake of tragedy, our response is appropriately silence. Aaron movingly illustrated this in the parashah from two weeks ago after he lost his sons, Nadav and Avihu. Following their shocking deaths, the Torah records Aaron’s response to Moses’ attempt at consolation simply as, “and Aaron was silent” (Leviticus 10:3). We cannot begin to imagine the sense of loss and disbelief that radiated from the depths of his soul when he learned his sons were destroyed by the God who ordained their service. Here they stood at the nucleus of holiness, engaged in what they thought was the service of God. Where else could they have been that would have sheltered them more from such tragedy?
Outside the sphere of those immanently touched by Nadav and Avihu’s deaths, speculation proliferated, recorded in the centuries of commentary that followed. Reason was offered, blame was levied. Rashi, highlighting the teaching of Vayikra Rabbah, claims they were killed because they were drunk ( 12:15 ). Rashbam maintains they had made an offering that was not commanded, and that forced their punishment. Whatever their reasoning or proof, it had little to do with directly addressing the tragedy that tore the fabric of their community. Commentary vainly attempts to make order of chaos.
This week, we are yet again in the wake of catastrophic events. The students and faculty killed at Virginia Tech may not have been in the mishkan, but the sheltered environment of our college campuses was shattered just the same. Our thoughts are with the families and loved ones affected by this shocking act of violence. Yet again, commentary has attempted to make order of the chaos that filled our world. I am not sure which was more jarring — the images of grief around the Virginia Tech campus, or the legions of news vehicles with satellite dishes. Cable news devoted hours of reporting and speculation, they developed logos and theme music. Commentary again focused on speculative reason and blame, but what is there to say in the wake of this tragedy? What consolation can we possibly give?
The tragedy of Aaron’s sons can be our guide. This week we encounter another couplet in the cycle of double readings. This coupling developed out of a calendar necessity. The Torah is comprised of fifty-four distinct portions. In order that our annual readings fit in the allotted spaces and coincide correctly with holidays, we double up on some parashiyot. Last week we combined the readings of Tazri-ah and M’tzora; this week we read both Aharei Mot and K’doshim, moving deeper into the text of Leviticus. However, beyond this logistical necessity of pairing parashiyot, we can read a deeper meaning in their forced relationship.
As most parashiyot are, each this week is named by its opening phrase. First we encounter Parashat Aharei Mot – After the Death: “The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord” (Leviticus 16:1). Intentionally, time has passed since the death of Nadav and Avihu — a textual time lapse, if you will. God has allowed for the gravity of the moment, for Aaron to grieve at the loss of his sons and only now, a week after reading Tazri-a/M’tzora, we can begin to refer to a period as “after the death.” It is now that we can gain perspective on the matter, look back, remember their lives, and learn from the tragedy. While both Rashi and Rashbam (as only a small sample of commentators) offer their views on why Nadav and Avihu perished, only now do we hear from God that they “drew too close to the presence of the Lord.” It is not because they were intoxicated or intentionally disobeying orders, but because they came into contact with the divine essence, a power too overwhelming to personally experience. This is the same essence that Moses could not see even at his most intimate moment with God, “because humanity cannot see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). Theirs was a tragic death, and God’s warning through Moses to Aaron and the priests at the beginning of Parashat Aharei Mot may even be read apologetically, “Tell your brother that he is not to come at any time into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover” (Leviticus 16:2).
Our second parashah, K’doshim, enumerates a litany of commandments for every area of our lives: from liturgy to law; from business ethic to Temple rite; from family to fraud. The potency of the parashah, though, is that these laws dictate much more than our relationship to each other; every commandment reflects our relationship with God as well. This is the impact of the opening verse, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). These worlds should reflect one another. Our world should exist as an echo of the divine. When we act in accordance to God’s law, we create relationships founded on human dignity.
Read together, as they are this year, these parshiyot are the Torah’s answer to Aaron and his family. After the requisite silence, the Torah begins to negotiate the tragic deaths of Aaron’s sons. It recognizes that before we can ever attempt to explain or comment on a tragic event, there is need for distance. Once we can recognize a time of “after the death,” we can begin to craft our response. The Torah’s response is clear. After tragedy, we seek holiness. After the death, we seek relationships guided by human dignity.
There will never be adequate words to relieve the pain of the families and loved ones of those killed last week. Our prayer is that the lessons we learn from the Torah have an impact on our lives. After the silence of mourning, after the moment when we can envision life after tragedy, may we respond with the holiness and human dignity that will echo the holiness of God. May their memories be for a blessing.
Rabbi Marc Wolf