Friday, April 5, 2013

Grief and Loss (Shemini)

Envy, grief, anxiety, resentment and anger are not just unpleasant for the person feeling these emotions but also for the people around them. One young man struggling with painful inner turmoil told me “I put a mask on every morning”, a false smile firmly planted on his face to get through the day. There is merit in containing our emotions, thinking about events differently perhaps or considering time and place. Equally, there is a need to acknowledge that we feel what we feel, however painful, and not seek to deny reality. Both of these approaches are reflected in the teachings of our sages and the Torah itself. The nuances of these teachings shed additional light on this challenge. 

Aaron the brother of Moses, and his wife Elisheva, are confronted with the death of their two sons, Nadab and Abihu, in middle of a very public celebration of the dedication ceremony of the temporary temple in the desert. The text does not mention Elisheva and does not tell us about Aaron’s initial reaction, only that after Moses speaks to him he is “silent[i]”. 

Commentators offer a variety of interpretations about what happened prior to his chat with Moses. One tells us that Aaron was crying out loud at first[ii], “screaming out of the bitterness of his spirit[iii]”.  “It is not right” argues another “that he should raise his voice and scream before God on this day… of the joy of his (God’s) heart[iv]”.  How dare he make a scene in God’s house - even if his two sons had just died?

The meaning of Aaron’s silence is also ambiguous. One translation renders his silence as praising God[v], or a quietness of the heart and an inner calmness of the spirit[vi] reflecting his acceptance of the tragedy. Today part of the ritual response to the death of a loved one is to recite “blessed is the true judge”, in acceptance of God’s judgement. Another view is that Aaron is persuaded by Moses that the death of his sons had a different meaning and reflected their greatness[vii]. Yet other commentaries see his silence as being about having a broken heart[viii] or “his heart becoming like an inanimate stone…not accepting any consolation from Moses as no soul was left in him”.
Moses also faces a moment of loss, not as great as Aaron’s but still substantial. He thought he would have the role of high priest in the temple, which would be passed on to his descendants. Instead, by God’s command he appointed his brother Aaron to the position he had coveted for himself. In a poignant observation one commentator writes that despite Moses’ humility and righteousness, every living heart feels[ix]!

In other commentary, Moses is praised for wholeheartedly installing Aaron in the role and being happy for him in it. When Aaron is reluctant, Moses insists that he is reciprocating Aaron’s earlier joy at Moses being chosen a leader rather than himself as the older brother. 

It might not be a contradiction. Moses might have felt the deep pain of disappointment at first, but perhaps after noticing and acknowledging his feeling to himself, he then took a deep breath, even a long quiet walk in the desert and reflected on how he was feeling and whether there was another way to look at it. When he found this other perspective he changed his thinking and was able to feel happy for his brother rather than sorry for himself. One of the wisest women in our tradition, Beruria, managed to shift her thinking about the death of her two sons from solely focusing on her loss to the idea that these children were loaned to her by God who then collected them. In contrast to Beruria, we are simply taught that Elisheva goes from the joy of having her husband installed as high priest and her two sons as deputy high priest, to the terrible sadness of a mother who has lost her children[x].

[i] Leviticus 10:1-3
[ii] Ramban
[iii] Abarbanel’s understanding of Ramban’s commentary
[iv] Abarbanel
[v] Targum Unkelus, version in the Chumash Kesser Torah, cited in Torah Shlaima
[vi] Shem Olam cited in Torah Shlaima
[vii] Rashi This connection is based on the idea that when the great were harshly punished for disrespecting the temple, it showed the importance of the temple and would have a positive impact on the rest of the people.  
[viii] Toldot Adam (commentary on Mechilta) cited in Torah Shlaima
[ix] Ohr Hachayim
[x] Rabenu Bchai

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