We’re coming to the end of the eighth day out, the first full day of this omer journey in which we are not celebrating Passover and/or Shabbat [written on April 12, 2015]. The Torah portion for this week is also called “Eighth [Shemini]” and speaks of the eighth day of ritual in the wilderness, one which turns tragic, as two priests offer “strange fire” and are lost:
Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before [YHVH] alien fire, which had not been enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from [YHVH] and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of [YHVH]. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what [YHVH] mean by saying:
Through those near to Me I show Myself holy,
And gain glory before all the people.”
And Aaron was silent.
— Leviticus 10:1-3 (translation in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary)
The Deepest Response…
In her commentary on this portion, Blu Greenberg links Aaron’s loss in the Torah portion with her own loss in 2002, when her 36-year-old son JJ was killed in a bicycle accident:
What could have happened? We struggle to understand? Was this a punishment from God, or a random accident? What crime could they have committed that was so heinous as to warrant death by flash fire?
…Aaron responded with a profound, shattering silence, a stunning silence, a shocked silence. He does not justify the cruel decree by blaming his sons and accepting their fate as punishment for their sins. Yet neither does he revolt or protest God’s action. Total silence.
…[Some visitors after JJ died] tried to justify God or soften the loss by giving it some meaning. “He was so good that God needed Him by His side” was one such attempt…I responded, “But we on Earth need him more!” Most people understood at the deepest level that there is nothing that could justify, nothing that could offset the pain or soften the blow, and they wisely remained silent. We ourselves were silent, as there were no words we could speak that would make any sense of it.
Jewish laws of bereavement…stipulate that the shiva [mourning] visitor should not speak until the mourner speaks. I had always thought that the point of that precept was to ensure that the conversation would flow to the place the mourner needs it to reach. But I now understand that the halachah [law] enjoining the comforting visitor to hold back in silence serves a different function: to caution against offering a rationale for the decree of death. The deeper human religious response is to be silent, to live with the contradiction, and to affirm that we need not force meaning into tragedy. Sometimes, the deepest response of love is to be silent.
— Blu Greenberg, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary
(NY: 2008, Women of Reform Judaism), p. 632-633
Throughout the centuries, commentators reading about Nadav and Abihu have rushed — as Greenberg notes above — to either assign guilt, thus justifying their deaths, or exonerate them and so vilify God. Similarly, our nation reacts to the seemingly unending litany of black deaths at the hands of police and others:
- she was armed;
- he shouldn’t have run;
- he was a “good” kid;
- she was going to college;
- the officer felt threatened;
- the whole damn system is guilty as hell.
This week’s Torah portion reminds us that each individual whose death becomes part of this on-going discussion about racism, policing and state violence was first a person.
And, somewhere in the midst of all that is to be said, we must make space and time, too, for silence.
We counted 8 on the evening of April 11. Tonight, we count….