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Marianne Novak

Still Looking

Batsheva z’l in all her beauty at her high school graduation. (courtesy)

This learning is dedicated to the memory of my daughter Batsheva Chaya Stadlan, z”l whose sixth yahrzeit will be on the 25th of Nisan.
לעלוי נשמה -בתשבע חיה בת נועם יגאל ורנה

My daughter Batsheva’s, zichrona livracha, crowning glory was her incredible, stunning hair. Her tresses were a warm, golden red, almost strawberry blond that couldn’t help but grab your attention. Its outward beauty truly signified the beauty within. After she died, I looked for her everywhere. I followed quietly- without completely stalking- any tall, pale red headed young woman. I googled red heads, followed red-headed television and movie stars on social media. I was once watching a talk show that had the cast from a popular teen focused show. One of the actors had her hair up in a high ponytail-the way Batsheva would often wear hers- and as she turned her back to the camera, I could have sworn it was my daughter. To this day, when I am flying somewhere , I am still hopeful that she’ll be in the waiting area or board the plane after I’ve found my seat. While my obsession (which I am told is totally normal ) has waned somewhat, I can’t help but look at the boarding passengers, thinking maybe I’ll get lucky and one of them will be my long lost daughter.

When my daughter first left this world for the next, six years ago, I fantasized that one afternoon she would simply knock on the door and I’d let her back into our home. We would hug and cry together for a long time. Then as the dream continues I would show her around the house pointing out what was new or changed and bring her up to date on all the news of the world, her friends and her family. This future reunion in my mind’s eye is filled with a warm feeling of love and repair. And then I wake up, still feeling traces of our imagined embrace.

The first year after losing her, I veered between crying constantly and everywhere to being silent and numb. With traumatic loss, the brain jumps into high gear to protect you. It mutes the pain so that you are not completely overtaken by grief. I think about that year and how much I got done and the moments when my brain quieted my tears so that I could get out of bed in the morning.

Batsheva’s yahrzeit this year coincides ironically with parashat Shemini, where Aharon experiences the violent and tragic death of two of his sons, Nadav and Avihu. The priestly brothers bring their own offering to the newly established mishkan, tabernacle, which the Torah calls an אש זרה, an aish zarah or strange fire. The commentators debate whether this behavior was a result of Nadav and Avihu’s drunkenness or their desire to get closer to God.

The actual narrative, however, amplifies Aharon’s experience not only of losing his sons but what he is forbidden to do to make any sense of this tragedy.
וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי־אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ קְטֹרֶת וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי ה׳ אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם׃

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 ה׳ alien fire, which had not been enjoined upon them.

וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי הי וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם וַיָּמֻתוּ לִפְנֵי ה׳:

And fire came forth from ה׳ and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of ה׳.

Aharon is most likely aware that his sons have died but Moshe addresses him as Aharon as a public servant and not a grieving father.

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־אַהֲרֹן הוּא אשר דבר ה׳ לאמר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ וְעַל־פְּנֵי כׇל־הָעָם אֶכָּבֵד וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן׃

Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what ה׳ meant by saying:
Through those near to Me I show Myself holy,
And gain glory before all the people.”
And Aaron was silent.

Moshe tells Aharon your public job as High Priest trumps any outward expressions of grief at this time. Not unsurprisingly, Aharon is stunned into silence.

Not only is Aharon mute, but he is then told that wailing for his lost children, that primal response to such incredible loss must be quashed, as is completely required of him by the laws of priesthood. Aharon and his family cannot outwardly mourn but the community can do it on his behalf.

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־אַהֲרֹן וּלְאֶלְעָזָר וּלְאִיתָמָר  בָּנָיו רָאשֵׁיכֶם אַל־תִּפְרָעוּ  וּבִגְדֵיכֶם לֹא־תִפְרֹמוּ וְלֹא תָמֻתוּ וְעַל כׇּל־הָעֵדָה יִקְצֹף וַאֲחֵיכֶם כׇּל־בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל יִבְכּוּ אֶת־הַשְּׂרֵפָה אֲשֶׁר שָׂרַף ה׳

And Moses said to Aaron and to his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, “Do not bare your heads and do not rend your clothes, lest you die and anger strike the whole community. But your kin, all the house of Israel, shall bewail the burning that ה׳ has wrought.”

Many of the commentators try to explain Aharon’s silence through a number of positive lenses.

The Rashbam sees Aharon’s silence as his understanding that he should not mourn due to him being the High Priest, a job requiring to be engaged only in all things life affirming.

The S’forno, the Italian renaissance commentator understands Aharon’s silence as an indication that he was comforted knowing that his sons died על קידוש השם, sanctifying G-d’s name.

But for those of us who have experienced loss, it is somewhat difficult to think Aharon didn’t cry out at all.

The Ramban believed that Aharon did initially cry and that Aharon’s silence is a description of what happened afterward.

But perhaps Aharon’s reaction was really his brain coming to his rescue, protecting from feeling the complete reality of his loss. And G-d’s insistence on Aharon not mourning and returning immediately to his tasks as Kohen Gadol are not cruel but keep Aharon busy and from falling into a pit of true despair.

When Batsheva died, I was finishing my second year at Yeshivat Maharat. I came back to school about two and half weeks later. Learning Torah saved me from the endless film loop in my head, the rerun of the day my daughter died and how I could possibly go back and edit it and my daughter would no longer be dead. I still grieved and cried, sometimes all day long, but the combination of my kind brain, the light of Torah, my husband, family, friends and my psychiatrist, pulled me through that first hard year after.

But then the second year hit and all of the natural protections had worn off. I was no longer running and trying to fix the videotape in my mind but the fantasy of seeing her with her shining locks took over my mind’s eye. I had to experience grief without any filters.

Aharon’s grief, while not handled immediately, is delayed when he has to experience the death of his beloved sister Miriam. Without Miriam, B’nai Yisrael loses its source of water, the well that traveled with them in the desert in her merit. It is at this time of mourning, Moshe and Aharon retreat to the אוהל מועד , the Tent of Meeting for enough of an extended time that the children of Israel begin to complain.

The Midrash Hagadol conceptualizes this moment as follows: Parashat Chukat, Numbers 20:7:

Another thing- regarding ‘Moses and Aaron came away from the congregation…’.
And the nation fought with Moses: It is also said, Moses and Aaron were sitting inside crying and Israel was crying outside, and Moses was not aware of them for six hours.
They entered and said to him, “How long will you cry?!” He said to them, “Should I not cry over my sister who has died?!” They said to him, “As you cry over one soul, cry for us, for we have no water to drink!”
Immediately he stood up, went out with them, saw that the well was dry and that they were fighting with him…
…Immediately The Word came to Moses and Aaron and said to them,’My children are dying of thirst and you are sitting and mourning over this dead woman. Take your staff and gather the congregation….
(trans. Rabbi David G. Winship via Sefaria)

Perhaps now, after all that time in the desert, at this loss, Aharon finally has the time to grieve his most tragic loss. In the tent with Moshe, finally, he was comforted and could leave this world without having to carry the heavy burden of his sorrow.

In the second year and the four years since Batsheva’s death, I, understandably, no longer have my brain and my entire community to keep the myriads of challenges, losses and disappointments that have come my way. But the protection of the first year allowed me to develop the tools to experience each low point and find the tools to pull me out. I feel everything but it doesn’t paralyze me.

It still allows me to dream and fantasize of a reunion with my daughter but in a way that makes me appreciate her life and love and not her death. And it let’s me hope in the slightest magical way, that I will see her incredible bouncing locks coming down the plane aisle to sit next me on my next journey.

About the Author
Rabbi Marianne Novak recently received Semikha from Yeshivat Maharat. She lives in Skokie, IL with her husband Noam Stadlan. She is an educator for the Melton Adult Education Program and a Gabbait for the Skokie Women's Tefillah Group. She recently joined the Judaic studies faculty at Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School in Chicago, IL.
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