Are we allowed to wonder about God’s actions? Are we allowed to suggest that God may be acting unfairly? This coming week on Monday, April 17 at 7:30 pm, we will mark Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day. These are difficult days for all of us. It is hard to grasp a loss on such a large scale. How can we cope, in terms of our faith, with such a terrible catastrophe that has befallen us? Should we simply accept everything as a decree from above?
This week we read Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47) in which the Torah tells of the deaths of the two sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu. In the midst of a great and moving celebration of the dedication of the Tabernacle, Aaron’s sons die without any prior warning. The event strikes everyone with astonishment and shock. Aaron falls silent. Moses instructs that the work of the Tabernacle should go on. He tries to comfort Aaron, but he, too, is not sure how to proceed regarding the animals for the sacrificial offering.
We react in different ways to a great loss or a life-altering catastrophe. Similarly, there are also various reactions to the deaths of the Aaron’s sons as outlined in rabbinic literature. I will share two of them.
1) The first is the desire to find a cause: The deaths of Nadav and Avihu are a punishment for their misconduct. The sages list more than twelve different reasons for their deaths. Some suggest they were drunk when entering the Tabernacle, or they did not handle the sacrifices properly. Others suggest it happened because of their personal behavior – they were arrogant or because they didn’t marry.
Such a reaction is extremely difficult to understand. Why blame the beloved two priests for their own deaths? And with regard to the Holocaust, this is outrageous. It is hard to even think of any explanation which blames those who died. Let’s be honest with ourselves – this is the easiest for many to react to. We call this the “Job’s Friends” theory – if bad things are happening, it is divine retribution for your errors. This is NOT my personal theology.
2) The second response is acceptance. In a rabbinic midrash Leviticus Rabbah 20:4 we read a fascinating story of a father and son. This story is carefully constructed. It consists of three parts. In each section, happiness is turned into mourning, as the death of the son is revealed to yet another group of individuals. In the first section, the joy of the man and his guests gradually develops. First the man marries off his son; then he invites guests to celebrate. A peak of happiness is reached as the wedding feast is consumed. Finally, the father sends the son up to the attic to bring down yet another barrel of wine from the attic, in an effort to raise his guest spirits still higher. But then the son is bitten by a snake and dies, rendering all of the previous celebration meaningless.
In the second part, this process of reversal is repeated. The reader now knows that the son is dead, but none of the characters in the story are aware of this. This section follows the father as he learns of his son’s death. The narrator builds up the suspense – the reader watches and waits, knowing the inevitable conclusion, but not knowing when it will come. This scene could easily have been condensed into a single line; instead, we follow the father as he waits for his son to return. Then, as the suspicion enters his mind that something may be amiss, the father resolves to go up to the attic and see if his son is alright. The phrase used in the midrash, “ma tivo shel beni,” “what is the matter with my son,” recalls the phrase earlier in the story: “vehetivu et libam,” “ he made their hearts merry.” This time, however, the reader knows that his son’s state is not good. Finally, we follow the father as he ascends to the attic and discovers his son’s dead body. The story uses the exact same words to describe what the father sees as it did to describe the son’s death the first time around – “a serpent bit him and he died.” However, the narrator adds one dramatic detail – that the son lay spread across the barrels. This makes the scene more vivid and helps the reader identify with the father’s shock and horror.
In the final section, the father comes back down to his guests. He does not share the news, but rather he waits until the meal is done. The father’s silence is most curious. This time, the reader does not know what is going on in the father’s head nor what is about to happen. Finally, as the meal concludes, the father speaks. He tells the assembled crowd that things were not as they seemed; they had thought that they were participating in a wedding feast and were about make the birkat chatanim, the sheva berakhot in honor of the bride and groom. In fact, they were eating a meal of consolation and were about to make the birkat aveilim, the blessing made before the mourner.
The transformation of the wedding banquet into a mourner’s meal is emblematic of the way in which joy becomes mixed with, and ultimately transformed into, suffering. This story also picks up on the universal theme of the complex interrelationship between love and death. It is as if the day of marriage and the day of death are two sides of the same coin, with parallel liturgies and rituals. It does not take much to transform one into the other. Thus, even a painful blow indicates the existence of God. It is not simple to be left with a question, with the recognition of the limits of human understanding.
I would like to end with a poem written by Dan Pagis. Pagis was born in Romania. As a child he was imprisoned in a concentration camp in Ukraine. He escaped in 1944 and immigrated to Israel in 1946.
No no: they definitely were
human beings: uniforms, boots.
How to explain? They were created
in the image.
I was a shade.
A different creator made me.
And He in His mercy left nothing of me that would die.
And I fled to Him, rose weightless, blue,
forgiving – I would even say: apologizing –
smoke to omnipotent smoke
without image or likeness.
WE WILL ALWAYS REMEMBER