April 20, 2012

Dealing with adversity, fear and loss with courage is a lesson we learn this week from our forefather Aaron.  After his sons Nadav and Avihu are struck dead in the Mishkan, and Moses offers a quick and puzzling explanation, the Torah says “vayidom Aharon” (Aaron was silent).  This does not necessarily mean that he stifled his grief.  It may be, as some commentators have it, that Aaron first wept in shock and then regained his composure.  But what was going on within?  There are many reasons given for his sons’ deaths.  All are plausible and are left for each of us to ponder.  What we can observe is what Aaron did.  He slowly returned to routine, but he refused to eat the chattat (sin offering) after a lengthy and complex exchange between him and his brother Moses.

As we learned in Parashat Vaykira, there are different levels of chattat.  The more serious purification offerings have the blood applied INSIDE the tent at the incense altar and the carcass burned OUTSIDE the camp.  The lower level chattat (e.g. for the unintentional impurity of an individual) have their blood applied to the OUTSIDE altar and their flesh eaten by the Kohen.  In this case, however, Aaron has not eaten the chattat, as he was supposed to do, but rather had it burnt.  Moses is alarmed--perhaps terrified--that further tragedy will result from this breach of protocol.  He chastises Aaron, but Aaron explains that “such as this has befallen me.”  He seems to anticipate the law alluded to in Deuteronomy 26:14 “lo achalti b'oni,” that the priest should not eat in mourning (presumably because of his impurity but perhaps even because of his state as an onen).  Alternatively, Aaron may feel that the death of his sons had brought impurity to the shrine, thus contaminating the meat and requiring it to be burnt.  Moses acquiesced to the argument posed by Aaron and is not angered but is pleased.  As Rashi notes, Moses was not embarrassed and admitted the justice of Aaron’s argument.

It takes a certain nobility of spirit to face adversity with courage, audacity and also humility. That is what I perceive from Moses and Aaron.  Life often presents rejection, disappointment, threat and even tragedy.  It is natural to feel angry, frightened or humiliated and to lash out in response.  Judaism does not teach a “turn the other cheek” approach, but it also does not favor angry retorts.  We must be deliberate even in a time of challenge, acting with principle and pursuing peace.

Just as my rabbis implored upon me, I do likewise.  We are constantly told that the Torah tells us how to live our lives, yet it is hard to see concrete modern day examples.  Here we see the aegis of one of the fundamental concepts of our mourning practices.  During Shiva, Jews do not extend greetings.  We are there to share grief, not exchange pleasantries.  Aaron is our model—“Aaron was silent,” even in his deepest grief.

We face a challenging time in our world with issues happening everywhere, every day.  We each need to access quiet conviction and true openness from any and every direction.  Sometimes, we will find ourselves overcome like Moses was with a rational response; we should seek the grace to pleasantly accept it.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham