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Naomi Graetz

The Death of Siblings and Aaron’s Silence

THE TINDERBOX WE LIVE IN AND THE DEATH OF SIBLINGS

We are in a constant state of tension. At the end of February, two Israeli brothers Hallel, 21, and Yagel Yaniv, 19, were on the way to a wedding in Har Bracha and were shot dead in a terror attack. During that time, we were marching and counter-marching. Everyone was taking sides. Even our very Right-wing mayor, Pini Badash, in a very thoughtful interview, said, we are in a civil war and went out to join the majority of the country to protest, when the firing of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant got to be too much for him (here). Everyone is on edge. Everyone blames the other. Despite the respite for Passover, the protests are continuing. Compromise is difficult when there is no trust. In the middle of all this, we are all reeling from the latest tragedy concerning siblings, sisters this time, that befell a British Israeli father who eulogized with great dignity, his two daughters Maia, age 20, and Rina, age 15 and his wife Lucy Dee, all of whom died from a terrorist attack when they were on their way to a vacation in Tiberias. And now another tragedy concerning siblings, that took place at the end of Passover, the drowning of two brothers Ma’ayan, 24, and Sahar Asor, 17, who were carried away by the heavy floods and strong winds on their way to a vacation in Eilat. Even the weather seems to be conspiring against us and sending us a message.

HOW DOES ONE REACT TO THE DEATHS OF ONE’S BELOVED CHILDREN?

I am always amazed at how timely, the weekly parsha is to current events. And sure enough, in this week’s parsha we read about the death of Aaron’s two sons, the siblings Nadav and Avihu, and his reaction to their death:

Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the YHWH alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from (מלפני) the YHWH and consumed them; thus, they died at the instance of (before) (לפני) the YHWH. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the YHWH meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.” And Aaron was silent! And Moses said to Aaron and to his sons Eleazar and Itamar, “Do not bare your heads and do not rend your clothes, lest you die and anger strike the whole community. But your kinsmen, all the house of Israel, shall bewail the burning that the YHWH has wrought. And so do not go outside the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, lest you die, for the YHWH’s anointing oil is upon you.” And they did as Moses had bidden (Leviticus 10: 1-7).

Unlike the three sets of siblings mentioned above, Nadav and Avihu seem to be responsible for what happened to them, because they offered up “alien fire” and it was God who punished them by fire. Yet, I am always upset by their deaths. Couldn’t God have given them a second chance? And what about their father? Not only was he silent, but he was told not to mourn. I have always wondered whether Aaron was affected in any way by “bottling up” his emotions, by not being able to voice his sorrow. If he does not weep, or mourn, what does that do to him and his family?

The Modern Orthodox feminist writer, Blu Greenberg  wrote the following:

Weeping and mourning are two very different reactions. Mourning or eulogizing is a review of a person’s life, and appraisal, an evaluation. Weeping on the other hand is a primeval, instinctive reaction to a tragedy, especially one that strikes without warning. It is not a deliberate performance; it bursts forth spontaneously. Weeping is a release of unbearable tension when the whole world seems to be crumbling . . . No one can understand the bleak loneliness and painful nostalgia of a surviving mate. One’s whole world seems dislocated (here).

DAVID AND JACOB’S REACTIONS TO THEIR SONS DEATH

In my teaching about parent’s reaction to their children’s deaths, I often compare Aaron’s non-reaction to the exceedingly emotional reaction of both David and Jacob to their sons’ deaths.

David

He was shaken; he wept; he moaned: “My son Absalom! O my son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you! O Absalom, my son, my son!” And because of his unseemly mourning, the victory that day was turned into mourning for all the troops and the troops stole into town in shame rather than with feelings of victory. And the king covered his face and the king cried with a loud voice, “my son Absalom! Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Sam 19:5)

Since it is considered weakness for leaders to express too much emotion, David’s adviser and general (like Moses) rebukes his all too human sorrow on the death of his son:

Joab came to the king in his quarters and said, “Today you have humiliated all your followers, who this day saved your life, and the lives of your sons and daughters, and the lives of your wives and concubines, by showing love for those who hate you and hate for those who love you. For you have made clear today that the officers and men mean nothing to you. I am sure that if Absalom were alive today and the rest of us dead, you would have preferred it. Now arise, come out and placate your followers! For I swear by the YHWH that if you do not come out, not a single man will remain with you overnight; and that would be a greater disaster for you than any disaster that has befallen you from your youth until now” (2 Sam 19:6-8).

Unlike our current leader, David, does not fire his adviser for telling him the truth. Rather he listens to his general and realizes he is right.

Jacob

Like David, after the death of Absalom, Jacob is inconsolable and weeps and mourns and rends his clothes and goes into deep mourning when he hears of his beloved son Joseph’s death:

He recognized the bloody garment, and said, “My son’s tunic! A savage beast devoured him! Joseph was torn by a beast!” Jacob rent his clothes, put sackcloth on his loins, and observed mourning for his son many days. All his sons and daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, saying, “No, I will go down mourning to my son in Sheol.” Thus, his father bewailed him (Gen 37:33-35).

There is some irony in the two descriptions. Although David’s grief is real. Jacob refuses to be comforted for a son he believes is dead and thus there is something unseemly and exaggerated in Jacob’s grief. And if truth be said, in Jacob’s own words, he never got over his image of himself as a bereaved father, even when Joseph was restored to him, hence his words to Pharaoh, “Few and hard have been the years of my life” (Gen 47: 9).

Aaron’s Reaction to His Two Son’s Death is Different

Whereas the two fathers, David and Jacob openly and excessively express grief, Aaron is silent — va-yidom Aharon (Lev. 10:3). Not only that but Moses cautions Aaron and his remaining two sons not to show outward signs of mourning and to carry on normal work, for not to do so, would lead to their death. What is most strange is that the three of them did what Moses told them to do without protesting their human right to mourn. I always wondered about this. Is the book of Leviticus pointing to the possible disintegration of family and community if the people see the leader mourning?

EXPLAINING THE INEXPLICABLE: RABBINIC MIDRASHIM

Beruriah

There is a comparable instance in rabbinic literature; one which concerns Beruriah and her husband R. Meir and the death of their two sons:

Beruriah was the learned and compassionate wife of Rabbi Meir. While Rabbi Meir was teaching on a Shabbat afternoon, both of his sons died from the plague that was affecting their city. When Rabbi Meir returned home, he asked his wife, “Where are our sons?” She handed him the cup for havdalah and he said the blessing. Again, he asked, “Where are our sons?” She brought food for him, and he ate. When he had finished eating, Beruriah said to her husband, “My teacher, I have a question. A while ago, a man came and deposited something precious in my keeping. Now he has come back to claim what he left. Shall I return it to him or not?” Meir responded, “Is not one who holds a deposit required to return it to its owner?” So, she took his hand and led him to where their two children lay. He began to weep, crying “My sons, my sons.” She comforted him, “The Lord gave, the Lord took. Y’hei sh’mei rabah mevorach, May the Name of the Lord be blessed…” (here).

I can never identify with Beruriah. Her actions are abnormal. The cost to her mental health must be enormous. Is Beruriah trying to imitate Moses when she carries on and doesn’t tell R. Meir about the death of her two sons until after Shabbat?

Yohanan Ben Zakkai

Another example is a midrash relating to Yohanan Ben Zakkai whose son dies. In this midrash, many rabbis come to comfort him: One rabbi refers to Aaron who lost his two sons and was comforted, for it says, vayidom Aaron.

He understands silence to be consolation. “So, Aaron was comforted, and you are unable to receive consolation.” R. Yohanan replied: “Isn’t it enough that I’m in distress! Why add to my misery by adding Aaron’s sorrow?” The Midrash records other “comforters” who invoke various examples of people who were comforted for the deaths of loved ones. Yohanan rejects all of these consolations (here).

There is a concept called post traumatic growth (PTG) which can be applied to this situation (here). Although it seems impossible to maintain one’s sanity after losing a child, life can go on and lead one to still count one’s blessings and see the greater picture. This may be what these rabbis offer to Yohanan.

It would seem that by carrying on as usual Aaron (and his two remaining sons) are experiencing PTG. But are Yohanan and Aaron ready for PTG? Don’t they need some time to process the tragedy and truly mourn?

VA-YIDOM: IS AARON’S SILENCE REALLY SILENCE?

There are many commentators who have difficulties accepting the traditional understanding that Aaron is silent in the face of the tragic death of his first-born sons. There are two possible contrary meanings of Va yiddom: The traditional interpretation is that Aaron was silent; and the non-traditional interpretation is that he moaned and cried.

Silence is Really Silence

The traditional view is to find meaning in Aaron’s acceptance of what has befallen him as you can see in this sampling of traditional rabbinic views.

  • Rashi (1040-1105) takes Aaron’s silence as a sign of his great faith: Aaron does not utter so much as a word of protest or complaint. In this interpretation, Aaron was rewarded for his silence (Leviticus 10:8-11).
  • Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) offers a dramatically different – and a much more human – understanding of Aaron’s silence. “Aaron’s heart turned to lifeless stone. He did not weep and mourn like a bereaved father, nor did he accept Moses’ attempts to console him, for his soul had left him and he was speechless.”
  • The former Chancellor of JTSA Arnold Eisen wrote Aaron was right to be silent: “Words fail…. One does not reason one’s way past such things…One lives on in spite of them, with the help of a sacred order like the one that Leviticus sets forth, the help of a community that sustains us along with that sacred order, and—incomprehensibly but amazingly—the help of God.” (JTSA Commentary on Parshat Shemini April 18, 2009]

Eisen follows the traditional understanding that Aaron’s silence was a form of acceptance that enabled him to move on and, in other words, to experience PTG. This means that the root dmm means silence and that Aaron held his peace and did not mourn, because he accepted the divine judgment. Another way of looking at this is that Aaron was rendered mute by shock, accompanied by a deep depression. This reading is supported by the reading of the last day of Passover, Shirat hayam “Terror and dread descend upon them; through the might of Your arm, they are still as stone yiddemu ka-aven (Exodus 15:16).

Silence is not silence

But a minority opinion can be based on the word Vayidom meaning crying. Nachmanides (1194-1270, Ramban) writes:

VAYIDOM AHARON’ (AND AARON WAS SILENT). This means that he had cried aloud, but then he became silent. Or perhaps the meaning thereof is as in the verse, let not the apple of thine eye ‘tidom’ (cease). *Lamentations 2:18. Here then the meaning would be: “and Aaron ceased to shed tears.” According to the first interpretation, he was silent, not crying out aloud, but he still shed tears. But according to the second interpretation he was calmed completely (here).

Ramban bases his interpretation on the passage from Lamentations:

Their heart cried out to the Lord. O wall of Fair Zion, Shed tears like a torrent Day and night! Give yourself no respite, Your eyes no rest (al tidom bat einecha). Arise, cry out in the night at the beginning of the watches, Pour out your heart like water in the presence of the Lord!  (Lamentations 2:18-19)

Ramban reads the word dom (falling silent) in the context of torrential tears from one’s eyes. When he stops, he is silent and then can engage in healing. Oddly enough it is Moses who tells him not to mourn, not God.

COUNTERVOICES

Aaron is not the only one who loses his two sons. His wife Elisheva appears in rabbinical literature and is allowed to mourn (Leviticus Rabbah 20:2). This is in contrast to Aaron whose life does not collapse when his sons die and who is expected to go to work–business as usual without a mourning period. His status, in contrast to Elisheva is achieved and as such means he cannot take time out to mourn. Unlike Elisheva who is in a permanent state of trauma, Aaron has moved on and experienced PTG. In my rewriting of the story, I criticize those who do not mourn (here, page105). It is true that we expect more of our leaders than we do of ourselves. That may be unfair, but it is possible that a mourning, weeping sitting leader cannot effectively do his or her job.

ON A PERSONAL NOTE

I would like to end this on a personal note. When my father died at age 74 from lung cancer, my mother insisted at his funeral, that I do not cry in front of “all these people.” It was very important for her that we keep up a façade of respectability. This is a painful memory for me and so it should be clear why I prefer Ramban’s interpretation. Every year I am reminded of my mother’s reaction to not cry in public when we read this chapter. I believe that our (her) reactions to tragedy reveals a lot about who we are.

YOM HASHOAH AND PARSHAT SHEMINI

We almost always read parshat shemini during the period of tragedy and transition from Passover to Yom Hashoah, and Yom Hazikaron. We often ask ourselves what is the “right” reaction to unfair tragedy. We usually try to assign meaning to what has happened, or to blame someone else or even the entire system (e.g., the hospital, government, teachers).

Fortunately, today, we have usually stopped blaming the victim (he smoked; he was fat; they went like sheep to the gas chambers; they didn’t see the writing on the wall; they were driving in the territories; she dressed provocatively; it’s dangerous to travel when it’s raining). We try to ‘understand’; to make sense of what is totally incomprehensible as a way to keep ourselves sane. But the truth of the matter is that bad happens to good people and good to bad people and that is the way of the world. Just read the Book of Job (which I happen to be teaching this year). I believe it is wrong to say in the liturgy “al het” –we have sinned–for things that are beyond our control. This approach will not result in salvation, nor in safety from evil or disease. Of course, we must look at both sides of the street before we cross the road and not overdo food, liquor and maybe even exercise. But we must remember that none of this gives us absolute protection from the inevitable, the crazy person, disease, terrorism, and the arbitrary whim(s) of God towards those who are close to him.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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