TORAH TUESDAYS: PARSHAT SHMINI
BY HENNIE BLACK
IN THIS WEEK’S PARSHA, WE LOOK AT THE UNTIMELY DEATHS OF TWO OF AHARON’S SONS, NADAV AND AVIHU, WHILE THEY BROUGHT INCENSE ON THE DAY OF THE MISHKAN’S INAUGURATION.
WHY DID THESE RIGHTEOUS MEN DESERVE TO DIE?
ARE WE LEFT TO ACCEPT THIS TRAGEDY WITHOUT UNDERSTANDING WHY?
In this week’s Torah portion of Shmini, we learn about the tragic death of Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu. It occurred on the day of the mishkan’s inauguration, a day of joy after months of preparation and building, leading up to this auspicious moment.
Aharon’s two sons Nadav and Avihu are so exuberant about the festivities that they decided on their own accord to being an offering to G-d. The verse describes it as “a foreign fire, which was not commanded by G-d.” As a result, they are punished immediately with death.
It is hard for us to comprehend Nadav and Avihu’s death. Why did these righteous men die? And why did it happen on a joyous day when the mishkan was finally built and the Jewish people were celebrating its inauguration? It doesn’t make sense to us, and yet the Torah tells us that the reaction of their father Aharon was silence: “VaYidom Aharon” [And Aaron was silent]. He didn’t complain. He didn’t ask questions. He accepted G-d’s decree, even when he didn’t understand why and how.
The word “VaYidom” [and he was silent] is connected to the Hebrew word word “domem,” which means an inanimate object. Just like an inanimate object is incapable of speaking, Aharon remained silent, even though inside he was most likely experiencing turmoil, pain and grief.
The lesson is a difficult one, but it is an important one to contemplate nonetheless: Even when things appear to be bad, Judaism teaches us that there is an ultimate reason beyond our comprehension. Because we are so limited in our understanding as to why things happen, we often view things as unfair or incorrect. If we could only see the bigger picture. But limited as we are as human beings, we are called upon to develop a deeper faith in G-d’s ultimate goodness and the belief that whatever happens is also for the good.
Moshe comforts Aharon and he, along with the other kohanim and Levites, continue with the service in the mishkan. They find the strength within themselves to continue on and to learn from the tragedy.
Throughout our history, people with faith have found a way to accept and come to terms with the hardest, most painful circumstances. Even through the worst of times, the Jewish people, in particular, have displayed the unique capacity to continue forward and have hope for a better tomorrow. This has been the Jewish way since the beginning of time. It doesn’t take away from the challenges; it doesn’t take away from the grief or pain, but it has provided us with a means of moving forward and has contributed to our people’s survival throughout history.
Today is Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), and it behooves us to remember not only the 6 million who perished but also the survivors who have manifested this story of strength, perseverance, and survival. Aharon’s faith has been implanted into the DNA of the Jewish people, giving us the ability to move on with great fortitude throughout the generations.
The perspective of Aharon as well as survivors of the Holocaust was to dwell not on the “Why?” but on the “Now what?” The greatest tribute that we can give to those who perished and those who survived is to live a committed Jewish life. The focus must not be on mourning and on death, but rather on building and on life.
I remember completing the tour of Yad Vashem in Israel and the guide who ended the tour said, “It is most important to live a life of ‘Kiddush Judaism’ and not a life of ‘Kaddish Judaism.’” What an impactful idea. Let us focus on how we live and how we celebrate Judaism rather than focusing on death. Let us make sure that the lives of the millions of Jews who died “al kiddush Hashem,” who died by sanctifying G-d’s name, was not in vain. Let us remember the legacy of survivors who rebuilt their lives with extraordinary courage and strength by living our lives of “Kiddush Judaism.”