Mourning Time — in the Parasha and at the Protests (14)
This is my fourteenth consecutive post connecting the parasha to Israel’s pro-democracy protests.
This week’s parasha, Shemini, reports a tragedy. Two of Aaron’s four sons are killed by fire that emanates from God (Leviticus 10:1-7). Moses offers Aaron a kind of explanation of what happened to Nadav and Avihu: This is how God shows his holiness through those close to him and his glory to the people. And Aaron was silent, Va’ yidom Aharon (v.3).
Aaron’s silence is traditionally and plausibly interpreted as a response to what Moses said. It is mentioned in the same verse and immediately after Moses’ account of the death of Nadav and Avihu. But we can’t rule out that Aaron’s silence was not a response to Moses’ words but a contrast to them; he was responding to the deaths themselves. In short, not ‘And Aaron was silent’. Rather ‘But Aaron was silent’.
It’s not surprising that Moses had something to say about the deaths of the two young priests, his nephews. Perhaps he was trying to justify God’s decision to kill them. Perhaps he intended to draw a lesson from their deaths or make an example of them. Perhaps he hoped to comfort his brother by trying to contextualize his tragedy in the bigger picture. Perhaps he was envious — Aaron’s role was hereditary and his was not. It’s not clear.
At the same time, it’s not surprising that Aaron was silent. Perhaps he was shocked and numbed by the death of his sons. Or perhaps he wanted to lament their deaths but knew better and held himself back. This latter reading finds some support in the unfolding narrative.
Moses instructs Aaron’s nephews to carry the bodies out of the camp by their tunics, and tells Aaron and his two surviving sons, Eleazar and Ithamar not to bare their heads or rend their clothes, ‘lest you die, and anger strike the whole community’ (v. 6). What was the problem?
Baring heads (cutting or shaving off hair) and tearing garments were mourning rituals. We see one of them again in the book of Jeremiah, when God tells the prophet that he plans to destroy the unfaithful inhabitants of the land, but that mourning rituals are prohibited.
Jeremiah 16:5 For thus says the Lord: Do not enter the house of mourning or go to lament or bemoan them, for I have taken away my peace from this people, says the Lord, my steadfast love and mercy. 6 Both great and small shall die in this land; they shall not be buried, and no one shall lament for them; there shall be no gashing, no shaving of the head for them. 7 No one shall break bread for the mourner, to offer comfort for the dead, nor shall anyone give them the cup of consolation to drink for their fathers or their mothers.
Mourning someone who died at God’s hand could be perceived as questioning divine justice or seeking to moderate God’s punishment. That’s why Moses told Aaron and his sons not to shave their heads or cut their garments. But perhaps Aaron already understood this and, even before being instructed by Moses, did not lament his sons (another mourning ritual, c.f., Jeremiah 16:6), but was silent.
Both our parasha and Jeremiah are dealing with the most familiar kind of mourning, the kind that happens after a death. Posthumous mourning. But as many of us have experienced, there’s another kind of mourning that begins when death is almost inevitable, as when someone close is dying of illness, injury, or old age. In these contexts, mourning could simply reflect the absence of a clear line between a death and the dying that precedes it. We might call this anticipatory mourning.
Often, though, mourning before a death is not just anticipatory but active. We mourn because we’re hoping at some level to avert the death. This is known as petitionary mourning.
Fascinatingly, an explicit example of petitionary, pre-death mourning is the biblical source of many of the Jewish mourning rituals we practice to this day. As in our parasha, the mourner is a father, mourning his son.
The prophet Nathan forces King David to admit his guilt for taking another man’s wife, Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, and making her his wife (2 Samuel 12:10). But the admission is not enough. Nathan tells David that the child he and Bathsheba had together will die. Forthwith, their son becomes seriously ill. David responds by mourning.
2 Samuel 12:16 David therefore pleaded with God for the child; David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground. 17 The elders of his house stood beside him urging him to rise from the ground, but he would not, nor did he eat food with them.
When David’s son dies, his servants are afraid to tell him. But he sees them talking, understands what happened, and stops mourning.
2 Samuel 12:20 Then David rose from the ground, washed, anointed himself, and changed his clothes. He went into the house of the Lord and worshiped; he then went to his own house, and when he asked, they set food before him, and he ate.
David’s servants are confused. Why did David mourn when his son was still alive and stop when he died? Because he hoped to evoke divine compassion and convince God to change his mind.
2 Samuel 12:22 He [David] said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me, and the child may live.’ 23 But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”
It sounds perverse, but it’s not so different from what happens on Yom Kippur, when we fast and lament, and when men traditionally wear kittels, the garments in which they will be buried, all in the hope of averting our own deaths for another year.
And it’s not so far from accepting rationally that loved ones have died while continuing to hope, or even believe, that they will somehow be restored to us. (I’m thinking of Joan Didion’s extraordinary Year of Magical Thinking, and of my own experience when my first husband, Peter Lipton, z.l., died of a heart attack after a squash game.)
When Israel’s pro-democracy demonstrators met after Shabbat this week, they were mourning the tragic loss of two young Israeli women and an Italian man, all killed in terror attacks. In the meantime, the mother of the two young women has also died. An unimaginable loss.
The Jerusalem demonstration, where I was, and I’m guessing other demonstrations too, began with a minute’s silence to mourn the victims. Va’yidom Aharon, And Aaron was silent. In Jerusalem, the mood persisted. There was no music, just one song that the crowd sang together: Arik Einstein’s heartrendingly optimistic Ani ve’atah, ‘You and I (will change the world)’.
The silence and the plaintive singing were expressions of the type of mourning we know best, a response to bereavement. But there’s evidence of another kind of mourning at the demonstrations, especially in these days when everything is falling apart. We are mourning a national spirit that might be fatally broken; a communal future that might be irretrievably lost; a country that, heaven forbid, might not be viable.
Yes, much of Israel is in mourning. You see it everywhere in people’s eyes. But it’s not the posthumous mourning of Aaron and his surviving sons for Nadav and Avihu, who were dead and could never be brought back. Israel is still alive. It’s the petitionary mourning of David for his living son, who did not survive, but might have done. It’s Yom Kippur-style mourning. May Israel get not just another year, but another chance. Keep demonstrating.
Some of the ideas in this post are based on my 2006 article ‘Early Mourning: Petitionary versus Posthumous Ritual in Ezekiel 24’.