Grieving Through Action: A Lesson from Aaron the Priest

I mentioned in a previous post that I had an exchange with one of our readers that I’d wanted to post here. Keith is a reader from the UK who carefully reads the parsha (Torah portion) for each week, and occasionally writes to me to ask questions about issues that come up in the parsha or in general. I want to take this opportunity to remind other readers that you are also welcome to write to me with any questions or comments you may have about topics discussed on this blog or Judaism or Israel in general (and I won’t post about them here without your permission!). You can use the contact form on this blog, or email me at letterstojosep at Gmail. 🙂

This question was about a story in the book of Leviticus about the sudden death of two of Aaron’s sons. Nadav and Avihu brought an offering to God that he hadn’t commanded them, and received a very harsh punishment:

Each of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, took his pan and put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and offered before the Lord foreign fire which He had not commanded them. And fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the Lord spoke, when He said, “I will be sanctified through those near Me, and before all the people I will be glorified.”‘ And Aaron was silent.

(Leviticus 10:1-3)

A very strange and upsetting episode to be sure, especially when we’re starting with the assumption that God is merciful and kind; why would he kill two priests just for being a little overenthusiastic with their offerings? But we won’t get into the explanations for their deaths here. Keith’s question was about the words, “and Aaron was silent”. We are taught that this means that Aaron didn’t protest or show any sign of mourning for his sons, and the Sages teach us that he was rewarded for his silence, ostensibly for accepting God’s judgment without protest. Keith asked for my thoughts on the matter:


Dear Daniella,

Shabbat Shalom….and I hope you all enjoyed Pesach.

I wonder if I may ask you about Shemini?

When I read it I was shocked by the deaths of Aaron’s sons, and also by his reaction. The command to not mourn seems cruel. I know there have been centuries of debate about why they were killed but I wonder what your thoughts and feelings are please?

Kind regards

Keith


This was my answer:


Hi Keith,

I, too, have always been puzzled by this episode. In general, Jewish tradition condones expressions of grief regardless of the cause of death, even setting up a specific structure for mourners to work through their grief. So why was Aaron rewarded for his silence?

Your question made me revisit some of the sources and I found two interesting ideas.

First of all, why does Rashi [one of the most famous Torah commentators] say that Aaron was rewarded for his silence? The “reward” was that Aaron received directions from God through direct prophecy, and our tradition teaches us that one cannot receive prophecy in sadness. Prophecy is only received when the prophet experiences joy. That means that Aaron couldn’t have been feeling sad at the time, because he received a direct prophecy. So it wasn’t so much a “reward” as a consequence of Aaron’s state of mind.

Another idea I found that I really liked had to do with something the Sages teach us about mourners. There is an idea that someone who is experiencing a major event in his life that would cause him to be too distracted/troubled to focus on performing mitzvot [commandments], is released from his obligation to perform mitzvot–such as a bridegroom on his wedding night. An “onen”, a person whose close relative has died but has not yet been buried, is also considered to be distracted, but he is still obligated to keep all the mitzvot except tefillin, because, the Sages say, his distraction is “optional”. Rashi explains that the “optional” aspect of his distraction is that although he is obligated to keep the outward traditions of mourning, he doesn’t have to feel sadness. The article I was reading went on to explain that in many cases, obviously, losing someone close to you will make you sad; however, some people choose to express their grief not by turning inward and sinking into grief, but by taking action to allow the person who has died to live through us–either through taking over or continuing that person’s work in this world, or through learning from their lives and trying to absorb and apply the positive lessons we can learn from that person to our own lives. This is why the mourner’s prayer is the Kaddish: May His great name be magnified and sanctified… every human being is an expression of the Divine presence, and when they die, they leave an absence. We “survive” that person and honor their lives by filling in that absence as best we can with the glory of God, working harder to “magnify” His presence.

So bringing this back to Aaron, this is exactly what Moses said to him: This is what the Lord spoke: I will be sanctified through those near Me, and before all the people I will be glorified. Aaron and his sons chose to express their loss by taking action–continuing with the work of the Tabernacle as God had commanded them, to continue the work of Nadav and Avihu, and help fill the space they left behind with love of God manifested in the rituals of the Tabernacle.

I think this teaches us not that we shouldn’t give space to our sadness and grief when we lose someone–but that we should also use our grief to motivate us to proactively “magnify and sanctify” God’s name in honor of that person’s memory. Action is a common Jewish response to grief. Many people set up charities or host Torah classes to honor the memories of their loved ones. Jewish hospitals and synagogues are full of memorial plaques from people who donated money or items to the institution in memory of someone. Founding new Jewish settlements has been a classic response to Arab terror since before the State of Israel was established. I think these things are an expression of the lesson we learn from Aaron.

I hope that helps!

Shavua tov and chodesh tov,

Daniella

3 thoughts on “Grieving Through Action: A Lesson from Aaron the Priest

  1. Thanks D for sharing!

    I recently lost my grandmother and this was just the right thing for me to read…
    I was wondering-
    What do people do to honor their grandparents memories? And what do ashkenazim do on a yohrtzeit?

    1. My own Zadie’s first yehrzeit is coming up soon, that’s a good question! I know some people donate to a cause or give a shiur or something, but I don’t think there’s a particular tradition for grandchildren, unfortunately. I say unfortunately because as a grandchild I felt very much at a loss for coping with the deaths of two of my grandparents in recent years, especially the first one, when my Grandma died in 2015. I was far away and couldn’t attend the funeral or the Shiva, and because I had no halachic obligations, I didn’t know what to do or how to create space for my grief. (Didn’t help that she died 4 days before Pesach; I was literally at home by myself vacuuming out drawers when I got the news…) Last year when my Zadie died I insisted that my sister “Skyped me in” to the funeral, and that helped a lot.

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