Midrash Tanchuma Shemini – When G-d ‘sat shiva’ for the world

 Can you imagine sitting shiva a week before you received tragic news that an immediate family member has passed away. According to Midrash Tanchuma, that’s exactly what Aaron and his children were ordered to do. It was something that he didn’t fully comprehend at the time, but it helped him cope with the tragedy that struck 2 of his children.

Where did this idea of pre-mourning come from? According to the Midrash, this is what G-d did a week before the flood.   

“Similarly G-d ‘observed’ 7 days of mourning prior to the flood. And how do we know that G-d mourned ? As it says ‘And G-d was consoled that he made Man and He was grieved in His heart.” (Bereishit 6:6) and ‘grieved’ (in this context) means mourning.”

How do we understand the idea of G-d grieving or mourning 

After all, G-d  certainly knew that the perverse actions of  Mankind were going to result in the flood. It sounds heretical to suggest that G-d was taken by surprise and started to mourn – even a week before the flood. The classic Commentator, Rashi, says that this question was indeed asked by a heretic, as recorded in Midrash Rabbah. Rabbi Joshua the son of Korcha was asked how Jews could claim that G-d knows the future when the verse clearly states that G-d was “grieved in His heart” which implies that G-d was saddened by this unexpected turn of events? Rabbi Joshua replied by asking the heretic the following question:  

”Have you ever had a son born to you?” The reply was ‘Yes.’ He asked (the heretic): ‘And what did you do?’ He replied: ‘I rejoiced and I had others rejoice (with me).’ The Rabbi asked him: ‘But did you not know that (one day your son) must die?’ The heretic replied: ‘At the time of joy, let there be joy, at the time of mourning let there be mourning.” (Genesis Rabbah 27:4).

G-d too, focused on ‘the good.’

Rabbi Joshua told the heretic that G-d also allowed the positive to outweigh the negative. However, from G-d’s perspective, the ‘good’ was creating a world for those righteous people who would one day be born. Even if the majority of the world had to tragically be destroyed in the flood which was something that indeed ‘grieved’   G-d. (Rashi, Genesis 6:6)  

The Midrash is providing an insight into what it means for Aaron and his sons to mourn prior to a tragic event. Perhaps G-d granted Aaron a temporary, divine, ability to experience two simultaneous realities.  

The positive – the vital role of Aaron and his descendants 

Rashi comments that our Parsha is not the dedication of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) rather the inauguration of the descendants of Aaron to serve in the Mishkan. Aaron must have experienced great excitement. After all, the Mishkan was the dwelling place of G-d on Earth. As Midrash Tanchuma mentioned in Parshat Ki Tisa, the Mishkan symbolized to the Jewish People and the world that G-d renewed his special relationship with the Jews following the sin of the Golden Calf. Aaron and his descendants, in perpetuity,  would have a vital role in bringing about rapprochement between the Jewish People and G-d by facilitating (Korbanot) sacrifices for both wrongdoings and when they came to express their Gratitude to  G-d. Even after the destruction of the First and Second Temple Aaron’s descendants continue to bless the Jewish People to this day. The “Priestly Blessing” is recited everyday by Kohanim in Israel and on Jewish holidays outside of Israel.    

At the same time, a  sense of foreboding

By sitting shiva, Aaron must have also felt the dread of an impending tragedy. Perhaps he felt that he would be punished for his role in facilitating the building of the Golden Calf. In fact, Rashi comments on the verse in Deuteronomy where Moses says:

“And I also prayed on behalf of Aaron at the time.” (Deuteronomy 9:3)

 After hearing about the Golden Calf, Moses prayed that no harm would come to the 4 sons of Aaron. Upon the death of Aaron’s 2 sons, Moses realized that only half of his prayer was answered.

As we mentioned above, the heretic was faced with two clashing realities, the joyous birth of a son, and the eventual death of that son. He did what any of us would do – focus on the joy and block out any negative thoughts about the future. Perhaps, by sitting shiva prior to the death of his two sons, the Midrash is letting us know that G-d enabled Aaron to bring both emotions into focus. This helped him cope with the terrible impending tragedy.

Why did G-d mourn before the flood

This question was asked by the great Lithuanian Torah scholar, Barukh HaLevi Epstein (1860-1942) in his commentary Torah Temimah. He noted that G-d sitting shiva for the world is the earliest source for our ritual of sitting shiva. As an act of compassion, G-d showed the world that they need not mourn intensely for a longer period than G-d Himself mourned for the destruction of the world. (Talmud Moed Katan 27B). According to Rabbi Epstein, G-d’s mourning prior to the flood was precisely to show the world that G-d is beyond time. (Torah Temimah on the Jerusalem Talmud Moed Katan, 3:5).  

The consolation offered by Moses

Besides mourning in advance, the Midrash shares with us what Moses told Aaron after the tragedy to help him achieve further consolation:

And Moses said to Aaron, when I was told (by G-d)  ‘through those closest to Me I am sanctified.’ (Leviticus 10:3), I thought that you or I would be stricken (because of the Golden Calf). Now I realize that your 2 sons (were stricken) because they are indeed greater than you or me. (The response of Aaron to the tragedy was) ‘And Aaron remained silent’ (Leviticus 10:3) proving that the words of Moses provided consolation.”  

Realizing what could be just around the corner

Midrash Tanchuma sees in Aaron’s tragedy a sobering lesson for all of us.

“Because happiness waits for no one. Not everyone who is full of joy today will be joyous tomorrow. And not everyone who is grieving today will be grieving tomorrow.”   

The Midrash sites examples of the vicissitudes in the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Even G-d ‘seems’ to experience ups and downs. Upon creating the world He expressed happiness in all His creations.  Only to be disappointed with Adam, who was given one commandment, and he violated it. 

The discussion continues with the story of a wedding with all the guests in attendance. The father of the groom asks the groom to fetch a bottle of wine from the attic, not realizing that a poisonous snake was hiding among the barrels. When his son does not return he goes to look for him. The father then announces to his guests: 

 “You have not come to say a bridegrooms’ blessing over my son. (Rather) come and say a mourners’ blessing over him. You have not come to accompany my son to the wedding canopy. (Rather) come and accompany him to his grave.’”   

Oblivious to life’s lessons

Finally, the Midrash brings a story of someone who is suffering the pain and vicious cycle of addiction. As in the case of Moses and Aaron, it is a story of a close relative who tries to lift his relative out of despair. However, in this case, it’s to no avail.

There was a young man whose father was an alcoholic. The situation deteriorated to the point that every time the son would walk through the marketplace he would see his father drunk, wallowing in the mud, with groups of children making fun of him.

The son decided to take decisive action to spare his father this humiliation. He brought his father home and bought him all the liquor he wanted. At least he would be drunk in private. One day the son was walking through the market and he saw another drunkard being humiliated. He thought to himself that this could be a powerful lesson for his father. He brought his father to the marketplace and told him that this abused and pathetic drunkard was exactly the way his father looked to the world. His father approached the drunkard, crouched beside him and said “that looks like some powerful stuff you’re drinking, where can I get some?” When the son expressed his dismay, the father said:

“My son, I have no joy in life nor a ‘Garden of Eden’ except for this.”

Who are we in this story?

Are we sometimes drunk in our steadfast belief that no tragedies will ever befall us? Surely our current upheaval has sobered us up. In real life there is no one to shield us from all adversity. There is no going back to the Garden of Eden. Perhaps Midrash Tanchuma sees in the tragedy that befell Aaron the strength that comes from knowing that challenging times are inevitable. If we accept this we have a chance to cope as gracefully as Aaron.   


About the Author
After college and Semicha at Yeshiva University my first pulpit was Ogilvy where I wrote TV commercials for brands like American Express, Huggies and Duracell. My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. I am an Architect of Elegant Marketing Solutions at www.mindprintmarketing.com. We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
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