This sidrah begins with the climax of Aaron's ordination ceremony. In a moment of troubling drama, Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, offer "alien fire" to God on their own initiative, and a fire from God consumes them. Later in the portion, dietary laws concerning which animals are fit and which unfit for consumption are described.
The death of two of Aaron's sons in the third aliyah is followed by this instruction:
And Moses said to Aaron and his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, "Do not bare your heads and do not rend your clothes, lest you die and anger strike the whole community. But your kin, all the house of Israel, shall bewail the burning that the Eternal has wrought" (10:6).
Aaron and his sons are forbidden from mourning their kin. The fiery death of Nadab and Abihu is profoundly perplexing, and the perplexity is compounded by the divine command to forgo familial mourning rituals. God's behavior emphasizes the extraordinary nature of this case. It begs for explanation.
Wasn't Aaron in anguish? His two sons had just been killed by God's decree. An ordinary parent whose children died might rail against God and seek to find some comfort in public expressions of grief and ritual practice. But not Aaron. Instead, the Levitical text tells us in two Hebrew words And Aaron was silent. (10:3) Was Aaron's silence the result of being stunned, furious, or as Rashi interprets, accepting of God's decree?
Aaron's response may have been unusual, but it was not unique. He was a father, but he was also a religious leader, and religious leaders play multiple symbolic roles. Sometimes, they live under a microscope, feeling as though their every act is scrutinized and analyzed. They receive undeserved praise and undeserved derision. Celebrity status and leadership standing change the standards by which a person is judged. For every prize, there is a price, and the honor of religious leadership comes with a burden of expectations that may be unrealized and perhaps unrealistic.
Contemporary religious leaders may feel limited in their ability to express their own grief publicly. A community may have its own understanding of how a rabbi or cantor will behave at a funeral even if the deceased were a close friend. Just as a child may be embarrassed when a parent cries, so, too, a congregation may feel awkwardness when they witness a grieving religious leader. Consequently, a rabbi or cantor may feel constrained to conform to some communal norms. On the other hand, there are some leaders of the Jewish community who quite consciously flout this attitude and display their emotions publicly without any regret or apology. Abraham inaugurated this tradition when he cried and eulogized Sarah. However, the fact that the community could grieve while Aaron and his remaining sons could not do so can teach us the power of a group to comfort its leaders. In our selection, the people support their leader in his time of need. Moses comforts Aaron by reminding him that indeed the whole house of Israel is his family. The Talmud further illuminates the role of the community vis-à-vis its leaders by stating that the troubles of Torah scholars must be mourned by all. (Mo-ed Katan 28b), and furthermore that when a sage dies, all of us become like members of the same family, capable of feeling and expressing loss and grief.
Leaders need the community just as the community needs its leaders. Moses teaches us that whereas we may think that the community would crumble seeing their leader in need, it can instead be strengthened by coming together to support him or her. A recent story on NPR's Morning Edition about physicians with cancer exemplifies this point:
As physicians, we were the ones on whom others relied for their wellbeing and, at times, comfort and consoling. Hence, we found it very difficult to become dependent on others for our personal and professional needs. But our cancers and treatments gave us no choice: We had to be dependent on our family members, friends, and coworkers. We discovered that others wanted to help us, even needed to help us to feel that they were doing something to ease our burden. We came to realize that the therapeutic effects of the dependency were bidirectional. ("When Physicians Get Cancer," Morning Edition, April 6, 2006)
Jewish leaders today depend on communities to accept and support them, especially in times of personal loss. "The rabbi, it should be remembered, is a teacher, an expounder of Jewish tradition, and a judge of issues of Jewish law and practice; he or she is not a priest. Prayer services and life-cycle rituals are not 'sacraments' which must be administered by an ordained cleric to be religiously effective. They are rather, in the traditional Jewish understanding, mitzvot, commandments incumbent upon all Jews." (Jewish Living, 69) Cantors, rabbis, educators and other Jewish communal leaders should not be allowed to become surrogate Jews who absolve others from living rich Jewish lives. Aaron was silent while the rest of the community wailed. We read these words and weep. Leaders and members need each other. The interdependence of the Jewish community is still a challenge for us to understand and integrate into our own lives. Sometimes the leaders lead the community. At other times, the community leads the leaders.
- Think of times when the leader was lead, the teacher taught, the parent parented. How did this role-reversal affect the parties involved?
- Technology and the Internet seem to have made many formally public events private and many private thoughts and experiences public. You can participate in worship services from your living room in front of your TV or learn privately in front of your computer. Alternatively, you can log and post your internal thoughts for all to see. In your opinion, what are the drawbacks and benefits of these changes to our private and communal lives?
- It was the tradition in the Temple periods during pilgrimage times that one gate was used by everyone who entered the Temple compound and another was used for exiting, so that everyone walked in the same direction. The exception was that mourners entered through the doors used by the non-mourners for exiting and walked in the opposite direction. In this way, they could be consoled by all who encountered them. Similarly, in many synagogues, only mourners rise to say Kaddish and all present may console them. Other congregations rise as a community to show their support for the mourners among them. How do traditions that identify mourners serve the mourner, and how to they serve the community? With which traditions are you more comfortable?
For Further Learning
Today, communities have many traditions for supporting their mourners. Many will provide members to pray, to make up a minyan, so that the mourner can say Kaddish. Some provide congregants to go to the home of the mourner before he or she returns from the cemetery, to ready the house and lay out a meal. Others will provide one or more meals for the entire period of shivah. All of this is done so that the mourners do not need to take care of any of their needs except for mourning. Learn about what your community does and join in the mitzvah of consoling the bereaved.
Sh’mini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 798-823; Revised Edition, pp. 705-727;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 615-636