Parashat Shemini

Death, Grief, And Consolation

Reacting to Moses and Aaron's responses to the deaths of Nadav and Avihu provides us with an opportunity to examine our own responses to tragedy.

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I received a strange birthday gift a few years back--a book on mourning that was full of guidance for coping with the loss of a loved one. A kind gesture, to be sure; however, since no one I knew had died, the book was shelved. And until reading this week's parashah, that is where it remained.

Parashat Shemini recounts a story of tragic loss, the punishment by death of Aaron's son's, Nadav and Avihu, who "...offered before the Lord an alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them," and who were then consumed by fire that "came forth from God" (Leviticus 10:1-2). Though Moses makes an attempt to explain God's actions, Aaron's response is one of silence.

The Experience of Loss

Reading of this encounter with tragedy, I had a multitude of questions regarding the experience of loss and the attempts by loved ones to provide comfort. Through exploring these questions, I began to understand my strange birthday gift. For, though a mourner feels sadness, fear, anger, guilt, and pain, so does one trying to live life fully.

I came to realize that the book on mourning was in part an instruction manual not on confronting death, but on experiencing life deeply. And the story of Nadav and Avihu, through what is not explained, invites the reader to examine the timeless issues of both life and death.

memorial candleThroughout the ages, this story has generated countless commentaries that ponder what great sin could warrant such a divine act of severe retribution. The answers include failure to comply with ritual laws or to consult with their elders, ruthless ambition, haughtiness, lack of faith, and excessive religious zeal. Other explanations point to unsanctioned innovation, God's wish to have the brothers closer to Him, their entering the sanctuary drunk, and their refusing to marry. Finally, some commentators believed that Nadav and Avihu died for their father’s sin in agreeing to make the Golden Calf.

Although these various interpretations are fascinating, I will focus on how Moses and Aaron responded to this tragedy and what we can learn today from their very different reactions. In addressing his brother, Moses attempted to justify God’s killing of Aaron’s sons: "Then Moses said to Aaron, 'This is what the Lord meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.'" In response, "…Aaron was silent" (Leviticus 10:3).

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Beth Freishtat is the program coordinator of the Jewish Resource Center at UJA-Federation of New York.