Seeing God in Loss

Shemini By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Apr 22, 2006 / 5766 | Torah Commentary

Loss strikes each one of us at different points in our lives. None of us can avoid the experiences of the death of a loved one and the grieving that follows. And no matter who it is or when that time comes, it is exceptionally painful for those left behind. In his text, Understanding Bereavement and Grief, Norman Linzer perceptively writes, “With the death of a [spouse] you lose your present; with the death of a parent you lose your past, and with the death of a child you lose your future.” Our parasha this week, Parashat Sh’mini presents us with the sudden, tragic and mysterious loss of part of Aaron’s future, the death of his two sons, Nadav and Avihu. Though commentators struggle to understand the precise circumstances of their deaths [the Torah merely states that “…they offered before the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them” (Leviticus 10:1–2)], perhaps the more compelling difficulty is in Aaron’s response to this tragic loss: “vayidom Aharon” (and Aaron was silent). How are we to understand this seemingly trite response to the deaths of his two sons? Should he not have protested, as Abraham before him, “shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:25) or cried out like Jacob at his perceived loss of Joseph, “I will go down mourning to my son in Sheol!” (Genesis 37:35). Why was Aaron silent?

Rashi, the most prolific of medieval commentators, understands “vayidom Aharon” in consonance with the Aramaic translation of Onkelos, as a straightforward “and Aaron was silent.” Aaron’s response was indeed an absolute silence. For Rashi, this silence was not a silence of mourning but rather one of submissive acceptance. Quoting Leviticus Rabbah 12, a collection of rabbinic legends on Leviticus, Rashi writes, “He received a reward for his silence.” Aaron’s response is virtuous. Though he does not understand the ways of God, he does not seek to understand or challenge them. John Hartley echoes this traditional understanding in explaining, “Aaron clearly accepted what had taken place without lashing out at God” (Hartley, Word Biblical Commentary: Leviticus, 134). Though this response may be difficult for us to comprehend, it does seem to fit with the literal meaning of the text.

Rashbam, continuing in his grandfather’s footsteps, echoes Aaron’s respect for God’s judgment. Yet, Rashbam’s understanding is more nuanced. He reads “vayidom” in the context of Ezekiel: God declares to the prophet, “O mortal, I am about to take away the delight of your eyes from you through pestilence; but you shall not lament or weep or let your tears flow. Moan softly; be silent in mourning the dead . . .” (Ezekiel 24:16–17). Though the Israelites desire to mourn the tragedy about to befall them, God commands them to refrain from any expression of public mourning. The Israelites are silent. Reading Aaron’s behavior in this context, Rashbam portrays Aaron as far less accepting than Rashi. Indeed, Rashbam affirms Aaron’s inner feelings of distress and utter confusion: “Aaron refrained from that which he had wanted to mourn and to cry over.” The feelings remain a deep part of him; according to Rashbam’s commentary, he however suppresses them for the sake of God and for the sake of the collective community.

Nahmanides (Ramban) offers two other perspectives on Aaron’s reaction. First, Ramban argues, “vayidom” means “he became silent.” And so he writes, “This means that he had cried aloud, but then he became silent.” According to this reading, Aaron did express his grief and only afterward fell silent. And his subsequent silence is a contemplative silence, not one of full acceptance but rather one of struggle. It is an attempt to understand the mysterious and provocative ways of God.

In Ramban’s alternative reading he suggests that “vayidom” means “he ceased”: “…perhaps the meaning thereof is as in the verse, ‘let not the apple of your eye cease’ (Lamentations 2:18) and so Aaron ceased to shed tears.” As in his first commentary, Ramban believes Aaron cries over his sons’ deaths. What is different in this explanation is the nature of the silence that follows. This second silence is categorical and accepting. Aaron is calmed completely. Not only do his tears cease, but also his mourning in its entirety comes to a close.

We have seen that rabbinic commentaries on the Torah present us with a number of possible interpretations of Aaron’s reaction to the deaths of his sons, from total and complete acceptance to a painful cry and mild protest. Ramban’s explanation is most appealing to me: he recognizes that mourning must precede the acceptance of a loss of someone so dear to one’s soul. Moreover, expressing one’s emotion at such a time is not only human — it is profoundly Jewish, even central to our laws of mourning. A house of mourning becomes a safe space to speak of the pain of loss. There, the community comes together, bringing God’s presence back into the life of the mourner.

In his timeless essay entitled, “To Hold with Open Arms,” Milton Steinberg writes:

Given God, everything becomes more precious … [but] it is easier for me to let go. For these things are not and never have been mine. They belong to the universe and the God who stands behind it. True, I have been privileged to enjoy them for an hour, but they were always a loan due to be recalled. And I let go of them more easily because I know that as parts of the divine economy they will not be lost.

Seeing God at the center and realizing that our own lives and the lives of those around us are a precious gift on loan for a certain period of time, to be cherished but ultimately to be relinquished, may allow us to cope more easily with the pain and shock of loss, be it the loss of the past, the loss of the present, or as in Aaron’s most painful case, the loss of the future.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld. This is a reprint from 2000.