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Naomi Graetz

What Happens After the Death of Our Sons—Aharei Mot

We have been in a constant state of tension since October 7th, 2023. Before that we were marching and counter-marching against the government. Everyone was taking sides. Today we are still marching and counter-marching, directly and indirectly against the government, but also, about whether to release the hostages immediately or whether to continue the war against Hamas. Even in the government there are those who say we should not stop fighting, even if the hostages die in the process. We are still in a civil war, although no blood has been shed as yet. America also seems like it is in a state of civil war—at least on its college campuses—including my alma mater, CCNY. We are still on edge. Everyone blames the other. Compromise is difficult when there is no trust. There was no respite for Passover, and the protests are continuing. I imagine that at every Seder in the world, people mentioned the hostages, and included relevant passages to remind us that we are not all free.

PASSOVER AND MEMORIAL DAYS

In one week, we move from the joy of Passover to Yom Hashoah (the Holocaust Memorial day) and then to Yom Hazikaron (Remembrance Days for Soldiers) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day). Three weeks where our life seems to be suspended, but this year even more. And I continue to read our biblical texts with non-rosy-colored glasses. The last day of Passover, I pointed out to our congregation that there is a reason we read hatzi hallel and not the full Hallel of praise to God, that we read the first day of Passover. The reason everyone knows is that even when our enemies (the Egyptians and Pharoah) are drowning, they are still God’s creatures and we should not be totally rejoicing in their deaths. And then as an aside, I joked, “I guess God was left-wing in that he could see both sides of suffering at the same time.”

On shabbat hol hamoed, the haftarah we read was that of the dry bones coming to life in Ezekiel 37.

I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live again.  I will lay sinews upon you, and cover you with flesh, and form skin over you. And I will put breath/spirit into you, and you shall live again…..    וַתָּבוֹא֩ בָהֶ֨ם הָר֜וּחַ וַיִּֽחְי֗וּ וַיַּֽעַמְדוּ֙ עַל־רַגְלֵיהֶ֔ם

And I was told, “O mortal, these bones are the whole House of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is gone וְאָבְדָ֥ה תִקְוָתֵ֖נוּ  ; we are doomed.’ Prophesy, therefore, and say to them: Thus said the Sovereign GOD: I am going to open your graves and lift you out of the graves, O My people, and bring you to the land of Israel. You shall know, O My people, that I am GOD, when I have opened your graves and lifted you out of your graves.

This text is often referred to on Yom Hashoah, when we think of the pictures of the muselmänner who suffered from starvation, yet survived the Holocaust, literally as skin and bones. This haftarah was an eye-opener to us all and we had a long discussion whether the passage was meant to be understood literally, or metaphorically. The image of opening graves and lifting people out of graves, seems very visceral to us today. Most poignant is that the phrase “our hope is gone” ve-avdah tikvatenu”. This phrase was turned around in our national anthem, “Hatikvah” when we say עוד לא אבדה תקותנו– od lo avdah tikvatenu—we have not lost our hope. But even that made us reflect, for too many of us have lost our hope, even as we fight on and continue to protest. And assuming that the hostages return (those who are living) to us, the phrase that God will put breath, or spirit (ruach) back into these survivors is a reminder to us all, how much tending will be necessary to the spiritual and emotional needs of those who come back to us from the graves of captivity.

THE DEATH OF AARON’S TWO SONS

We can easily relate this week’s parshat aharei mot to current events.

God spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Deity. God said to Moses: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover (Leviticus 16:1-2).

These verses refer to what took place in parshat shemini where we read about the death of Aaron’s two sons:

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! Va-yidom Aharon. 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).

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. Should we blame people for being at the wrong place at the wrong time? Should we blame the celebrants at the Rave for dancing? The peace-loving members of kibbutzim for living near the borders? Why should we blame Aaron’s sons for doing something, which in different circumstances could even be rewarded? Couldn’t God have given them a second chance? After all, they were in an ecstatic state worshiping God. 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? This year we have seen so much mourning, both in the public and private sphere—and no one has been told to hold back their tears—to “man up”. The opposite is true. We are suspicious when people embrace the tragedy and give it meaning. Weeping is necessary, it is a release of tension when our world is crumbling around us. The mourner is in a state of bleak loneliness when his/her world has totally crumbled and dislocated.

In contrast to Aaron’s seeming non-reaction to the death of his two elder sons, David is exceedingly emotional when his son dies. David 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!”

Apparently it was considered weakness for leaders to express too much emotion in biblical times. David’s adviser and general (like Moses) rebukes the king’s 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).

We all know that we have a leader who could not care less about the nation he is supposedly leading. In contrast to excessive morning, when Gal Eizenkot, son of war cabinet Minister, Gadi Eizenkot, was killed in battle, his father took off for the seven days of mourning and then after the shiva, returned to work. This is expected behavior today. Whereas David openly and excessively expresses his 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 Aaron and his sons did what Moses told them to do without protesting their human right to mourn.

EXPLAINING THE INEXPLICABLE

There 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.

“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?”(here).

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. 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. But surely leaders, who are human beings (at least most of them), need some time to process tragedy and truly mourn?

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-yidom: The traditional interpretation is that Aaron was silent; and the non-traditional interpretation is that he moaned and cried. 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. 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.” Abravanel’s approach, reminds us of the reading, a few days ago of Shirat hayam which we read on the last day of Passover, “Terror and dread descend upon them; through the might of Your arm, they are still as stone yiddemu ka-aven (Exodus 15:16).

There is a second minority opinion 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. (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. Could it be that God wants us to express our anger and grief when tragedy befalls us?

YOM HASHOAH, YOM HAZIKARON AND THE DEATH OF SONS

We are reading these chapters 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). This year the whole country is still mourning as nothing has yet been resolved. No one in their right mind, dares blame the victims of the Hamas terrorists, nor the soldiers who have been wounded and killed in our ongoing war–except for those many besotted individuals in the West, who are accusing us of genocide. We try to keep our sanity, because it is difficult to make sense of what is totally incomprehensible. We are living examples of the truth that bad things happen to good people and good to bad people. Just read the Book of Job (which I finally finished teaching this year)! Since we also read parshat aharei mot on Yom Kippur, I might add that 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.

Despite my pessimism, I sincerely pray that it be God’s will (with the help of those who are governing our nation) that the hostages return safely home, in living bodies, to their families (and our entire nation) who anxiously await them. Ken yehi ratzon, amen.

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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