Shemini: In Response to Loss of Life

This week''s reading places before us the sobering tale of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron. The grand-opening & dedication of the Tabernacle is in full swing. God has consumed the first offerings and gloriously appeared before all the people. Into the midst of this ecstasy step forth the newly-consecrated priests, Nadav and Avihu. They bring forward an incense offering, an aish zarah – a foreign fire which had not been commanded. The flame of God bursts forth, literally ''consuming'' the brothers as surely as it had consumed the burnt offerings. A tragedy has occurred in the midst of ecstasy. The Tabernacle, God''s worldly dwelling-place, will for all time be linked with and founded upon this event, the incomprehensible death of two sons.
As I write this I am still reeling from the latest scenes of tragedy here in Israel. Still fresh in my mind''s eye are the harrowing images of the Fogel Massacre, the blood-stained slaughter of children. Still vivid in my imagination is the shock of shrapnel that exploded at the bus-stop a short walk from my house. A piercing howl of “Why!?” rises in all of our hearts. Why such death? Why the slaughter of sons and daughters?
Surely, at its best, the establishment of the State of Israel is a modern-day erection of a Mishkan, an abode within which God may dwell. And just as the dedication of the Mishkan is somberly marked by the death of Aaron''s children, so too the otherwise extraordinary founding of Israel has been marred and scarred by the tragic loss of sons and daughters. To live in Israel is to encounter both the rapturous joy of arrival, as well as the wrenching pain of violence and loss.
How are we to reckon with such unsettling admixtures of promise and pain? How are we to respond to the deaths of children, either by the hand of God or by the hand of enemies? While it would be anathema to offer pat answers to such sensitive questions, we all wonder how best to respond to such incidents of national loss. Where better to turn for wisdom on this complex issue than to Moses'' words of instruction to Aaron upon the death of his sons?  
The text reads, “Then Moses said to Aaron, ''This is what God meant when He said, “I will be sanctified in those that come close to me, and before all the people I will be glorified.''” And Aaron was silent.” Moses goes on to instruct Aaron and his remaining two sons, “Do not let the hair of your heads grow long nor rend your clothes, lest you die and wrath come upon all the people; but let your brethren, the entire house of Israel (achechem kol beit Yisrael) bewail the burning which God has burned.” 
The text here seems points out two responses, one by the priests, and the other the “brothers, the entire house of Israel”. These are like two archetypes within us. There is the priestly part of us which is instructed not to mourn. This is perhaps the voice of pure faith, the part of us that intuitively knows the mystic truth of the rightness of Divine will, bewildering as it may be to human senses. This is the voice in us that accepts that even this tragedy is the brutal but necessary finger of God.


And then there is the part of us that is represented by the brothers, the House of Israel. This is part of us that is familial and emotive. This part feels deeply and is compelled to mourn. Lest the priest''s mystic truth desensitize us to the searing pain of loss, or anesthetize us to the important task of tikkun olam, repairing the world, this brotherly love for one another prompts us to lament, to weep over the precious lives which have been torched and taken. This is the heartfelt task of brothers and the family home of Israel.


What''s more, it is precisely when we touch that emotive and expressive point of mourning and pain, that we ourselves become brothers and sisters in a completed household. When we mourn eachothers'' losses as our own, we merit the deepest sense of being an essential members of the house of Israel. In our shared mourning we become family. And somehow in the middle of our loss and lamentation, the very house of God is established and the divine dwells in our midst.


Kol Beit Israel - All the House of Israel


This House of Israel

is in avelut1

we sit upon the floor

and weep

the mirrors are black

our robes are slashed

and leather-less our feet


Our clan is clad in ash and sack

a dirge between our bones

a wail of anguish


rises from this home


The pittance of admission here

is expression

of lament

authentic, rasp and risen

mangled and intense


here the graves are multiple

and flanked

with stacking stones

which could, perhaps, be launched

at enemies

but sit instead

in memory

of what is gone



our weapony is our weeping

our protection is our prayer

our strength is born

when we gather to mourn

made siblings by shared despair


and in lamentation lies our comfort

and in this meeting, our Mishkan built


founded firm on the raw resilience

of the families of those killed


But hear this,

Our love is mightier than our anger

for we are a nation

of mothers and fathers and priests


We build houses out of


and change cemetaries into


with our songs of hope


We are made stronger by this weakness.

We will last longer because of loss.

We are the priestly descendants

who offer up our incense

in this House of God

- and pay the cost...


And though the ravenous altar

may take the lives

of those who tend its flame

we will make

of this Land

a looking glass

for God''s impending face

and pen His Name



A knock upon the lintel

lets in the shiva guests

God shuffles in amongst them

and bends to offer His



and in the madness of the mourning

and the anguish so immense

a Mishkan is suddenly erected

regal and resplendent


and a sacred space is made amidst the family

who endures such loss and grief

And the Mishkan looms strong

amidst the weeping throng

and God''s Presence

refuses to leave


1Avelut means a state of mourning.