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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Though I felt angry with Moses, I also felt a strong identification with him. How many of us also respond with words to the inconsolable grief of a friend who has lost a loved one? Because we may fully believe that no sense can be made of tragedy, and that no words will truly provide comfort, we often find it exceptionally difficult to refrain from speaking.

The Talmud, understanding the danger of doing so, counsels us against trying to comfort someone immediately after they have suffered a loss, "when the dead body is still before them" (Tractate Mo'ed Katan). And as we learn from the Book of Job, people entering a house of mourning should refrain from speaking until the mourner initiates conversation (Job 2:11-3:1). Grief counselors well understand that the most supportive role they can play is that of a compassionate listener. Yet Moses doesn't even give Aaron a chance to speak, and his words may have made any verbal response impossible.

The mystery surrounding the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, as well as Moses’ and Aaron’s responses to their deaths, provide rich material through which we can explore our own relationship to death, grief, consolation, and the nature of life. So, I think I’ll hang out with this birthday book a bit longer.

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