Water from the well: The aftermath of grief

“And Aaron was silent.” In his terrible silence, one can hear a reverberating scream welling up from inside, but restrained and given no outward expression.

‘THE TWO Priests are Destroyed,’ James Tissot, 1896-1900, Jewish Museum New York City. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘THE TWO Priests are Destroyed,’ James Tissot, 1896-1900, Jewish Museum New York City.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In this week’s Torah portion, Shmini, we read of the tragic deaths of Aaron’s oldest sons, Nadab and Abihu. Up until this point in the Book of Leviticus, Aaron and his four sons have been fully present as central figures in translating God’s word to Moses into action in the Tabernacle. In contrast to Moses, who works alone, Aaron and his sons work together.
For eight days, they have been performing carefully commanded and orchestrated acts of sacrificial worship on behalf of the people. God speaks to Moses and tells him to speak to Aaron and his sons. Aaron and his sons do all of the things that God commanded to Moses.
Now, on the eighth day, God’s presence appears before the people. The people’s response to the intensity is ecstatic prostration before the Divine.
At this moment Nadab and Abihu do something completely unexpected. They take their fire pans, add fire and incense and offer it up, unasked, before the Lord.
The next verse tells us: “And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died.” Their deaths take place publicly and transform a day of happy celebration into one of calamity.
To heighten the tragedy, Aaron and his remaining sons are commanded to show no signs of mourning, for “the anointing oil” of God is upon them. They are forbidden to bare their heads or rend their clothing. They must remain upright and active in their service to God.
One of the most famous passages in the portion is Aaron’s response to the death of his two sons: “And Aaron was silent.” In his terrible silence, one can hear a reverberating scream welling up from inside, but restrained and given no outward expression.
After Aaron and his sons finish the service, Moses rebukes them for not sitting down to eat the sin offering as required. We hear Aaron speak for the first time. He reminds Moses that the service has been performed as commanded, but he then asks, given what happened, would God approve if Aaron sat to eat as if nothing happened? Gently but with subtle urgency, Aaron expresses his grief and his inability to feast on roasted sacrificial meat in the wake of his personal tragedy.
The text tells us that Moses heard. Despite his elevated position, he is able to listen to his brother and recognize that the strict requirements of service need to be suspended at this point, to allow for some expression of mourning.
A FASCINATING series of midrashim (Leviticus Raba, chap. 20) presents a number of ways of looking at the tragedy. In their arrangement and the process of grief through which they take the reader, as the story is assessed from different angles, the midrashim are reminiscent of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief.
The first in the series presents the mysteriousness of God’s ways when the righteous are punished. The midrashic author quotes God as saying to the wicked: “The righteous were never happy in this world of Mine, and you seek to be happy?” Behind this statement is a recognition that awareness of mortality and death, lurking constantly in the background of our lives, mars true happiness.
Another midrash quotes a verse from Kohelet, “I said of laughter, it is mingled,” and brings a parable in which a bridegroom, at the height of his wedding celebration, goes, at his father’s request, to bring wine from the cellar, is bitten by a snake and dies. The father allows the guests to finish the meal and then informs them that the day of celebration is also a day of mourning.
There is no attempt to give explanation to the tragedy of Nadab and Abihu. Explanations are irrelevant at this initial stage of grieving.
Next is a midrash that shows anger at God for His unfairness. God asks Himself how He spared the wicked Titus, who defiled the Holy of Holies and came out untouched, while the righteous sons of Aaron went in to worship and came out burned. In this midrash, there is simmering anger at God for His unfairness. How does He spare the wicked and smite the holy of His flock? The question hangs, unanswered. This, too, is a natural expression of grief.
The next midrashim search for reasons to justify God’s actions by blaming the victims. Different transgressions possibly violated by Nadab and Abihu, ranging from arrogance to drunkenness to the violation of the dress code in the Tabernacle, are presented. One midrash suggests they were smitten because of self-enforced celibacy. Israelite priests were expected to marry and bring children into the word, fulfilling the command to be fruitful and multiply, in direct contrast to other religions.
Here we see an attempt to make sense of the tragedy and protect people from tragedy by reinforcing the concept of reward and punishment.
Finally, there is an attempt to find meaning in their deaths. The final midrash concludes that the death of the righteous brings atonement for the people, similar to the sin offerings once brought in the Temple. God, too, mourns when the righteous die, along with those left behind. Proof texts are cited in an attempt to bring comfort to the bereaved.
The deaths of Nadab and Abihu are a human moment in a book that is made up of Divine worship and sacrifice, reminding us that our mortality will forever be a part of our relationship with, and service to, God. There will never be final answers to the questions we ask, but the midrash acknowledges different stages as we grieve and ultimately encourages us to find meaning in our relationships with both man and God, and gives us space to find expression and find comfort in our grief.
The writer teaches contemporary Halacha at the Matan Advanced Talmud Institute. She also teaches Talmud at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies along with courses on sexuality and sanctity in the Jewish tradition.