Rabbi Sarah Bassin on Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1 11:47)
If you have spent any amount of time with a 3-year-old, you know this age comes coupled with a barrage of “why” questions: Why do you stop at red lights? Why do you put milk in your coffee? Why do birds chirp?
These questions can be exhausting for parents, but they represent an important milestone in our human development. As early as the age of 3, we do not just accept the world around us; we want to understand it. This impulse for meaning defines us as humans. We are hardwired to try to make sense of our world. It has led to many of our greatest advances as a species. But sometimes, this impulse takes over when there is no meaning to be found.
In Parshat Shemini, we encounter one of the most perplexing stories in the narrative of our people that leaves us searching for meaning. Aaron and his sons have just been through priesthood boot camp to learn how to fulfill their roles as priests for the ancient Israelites. After learning all the details of their jobs, Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu approach the altar with an unexpected offering that was not commanded by God. The result? God consumes their souls with fire and they die.
Their deaths are shocking. So many of our rabbis want to make sense of what happened. They reason that Nadav and Avihu must have angered God. Maybe they were drunk when making the offering. Maybe they died as a belated punishment to Aaron for having made the golden calf. Or, my favorite — maybe they died because they thought they were too good to marry any of the Israelite women.
Even Moses tries to offer a reason for Nadav’s and Avihu’s deaths, though he takes the more compassionate approach. Moses speaks to his brother Aaron in the name of God: “I am sanctified through those who are close to me” (Leviticus 10:3).
“Aaron,” he seems to say, “your sons did not die in vain. God felt close to them and took them.” One rabbi, the Ohr Hachayim, builds on Moses’ more gracious way of making meaning of this tragedy. “They approached the supernal light out of their great love of the Holy, and died,” he says. “Thus they died by ‘divine kiss,’ such as experienced by the perfectly righteous.”
What is Aaron’s response to all of this? Silence. The text tells us he said nothing. In the face of tragedy, sometimes there are no words. There is no meaning to be made. We simply must sit and grieve.
We can all empathize with Moses and the rabbis in their desire to explain what happened. In moments of tragedy, we want to say the right thing. We want to take the sting out of death and suffering and pain. We want to comfort the afflicted and we want to comfort ourselves because of our human need for the world to make sense. But if there is meaning to be made from suffering, it is for the person who has experienced the tragedy to make that meaning, not those witnessing from the outside.
Our tradition teaches us to follow the cues of those who mourn. When we enter the home of the mourner, we do not speak until we are spoken to. As Rav Papa offers in the Talmud, “The merit of attending a house of mourning lies in the silence observed.”
Silence can feel deeply inadequate in the face of suffering. But the act of being present is a thousand times more powerful for the one who is suffering. And it is infinitely more powerful than saying the wrong thing — even if it makes sense to us.