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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At this point, I was angry with Moses. Why did he speak these words--were they what Aaron needed to hear? Did Moses imagine that his words, while well-intentioned, really would console his grieving brother? And though Moses’ words may have contained truth, were they able to access both what Moses knew and what he felt? Indeed, what was he feeling in this moment, or did he consciously choose not to feel? And if Moses did have an emotional as well as a rational response, for whom was it--himself? Aaron? The entire community?

Aaron's Response

What of Aaron's response? What was going through his mind, and how do we interpret his silence? Did he believe Moses’ words, and was he consoled by them? Would Aaron’s heart and mind have found peace from Rabbi Akiva’s teaching that, "All that the Almighty does is for the good?" Perhaps Aaron suppressed his grief for the sake of God, or for the sake of communal peace, or perhaps he was in such shock that he couldn’t find his voice. It’s possible that had Aaron not been silenced by Moses' words, and had Moses responded to this tragedy differently, Aaron might have been able to access and express his grief.

But by not being told why Aaron remains silent, we are free to use the Torah as a mirror to wrestle with our inner responses and understandings of his loss. In personally identifying with Aaron, I felt incensed over the denial of my grief. Should I rejoice rather than grieve? To do so would be to disown my real feelings in the face of inconceivable loss. I would have wished for a more compassionate response from my brother.

Today, tragedy surrounds us. As in times past, we look to our leaders for guidance. When a group of Jewish leaders recently was asked to list the qualities they most valued in a leader, compassion was near the top. Rudolph Guiliani was lauded for both his strength and his palpable display of compassion in response to the tragic events of September 11th.

Many of us watched Howard Lutnick, the CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald, break down in sobs as he spoke of the pain he felt for the families of his employees lost in the World Trade Center inferno. Through witnessing his searing grief, I began to truly feel the tragedy that had befallen us. No one thought that he was acting inappropriately or that he should, "pull himself together" and model strength for his employees. Instead, he modeled what it is to be a human being, to feel life in all of its rawness and all of its awesomeness.

We must make a place for grief in our communal lives, not merely behind closed doors. Judaism understands this and facilitates such expression. The community comes together in a house of mourning in part to provide a safe place for mourners to feel and speak of their pain. We rend our clothing because it is important to be mourners, rather than to just get back to "business as usual." This external act of rending reflects an internal violence, the rending of one's heart.” All garments must be rent opposite the heart...for the mourner has to expose his heart" (Kitzur Shulkhan Arukh --Abridged Code of Jewish Law) 195:3-4).

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