Parsha Shemini, Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47
Amidst the joy of a wedding celebration, we hear the contrasting shattering of the glass as the groom’s shoe descends on it. We are suspended in a stunned silence. It is awkward to get out of a moment like that, so, after a deep breath, we shout a communal “Mazel Tov” and try to forget the tragedy of the glass. Yet, the glass is still shattered.
This is a motif for Parsha Shemini. Here, there is also sadness within the joy. The sanctuary has been completed in a way that is deserving of G-d’s presence. We are still at a point in our story where we need to see G-d’s presence to believe it. We have seen plagues, booming voices, and dark clouds. Now, we see sacrifices being offered, sin offerings and burnt offerings, and they are accepted by being consumed in fire.
Then, Nadav and Avihu, two of Aaron’s four sons, are so carried away with the joy of these proper sacrifices, that they try to concoct a sacrifice of their own. Both sons are consumed in fire and die. As with the broken wedding glass, we have an immediate stunned silence. Even Aaron, the boys’ father, is silent.
There has been much speculation as to why Nadav and Avihu may have gotten carried away with the idea of concocting their own sacrifice. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (z”l), of blessed memory, looked at it in an insightful and slightly different way. Descendants of their father, Aaron, the sons were also priests or kohanim. As Rabbi Sacks taught, “The priest was the guardian of order. …. The priestly vocation was to remind people that there are limits. ” Establishing, understanding, and respecting boundaries is a moral foundation. The sons needed to continue setting the example.
The parsha has many don’ts and dos for what cannot be sacrificed and what can be sacrificed, for what cannot be eaten and for what can be eaten, and, perhaps, from the lesson of Nadav and Avihu, what should not be said and what might be said to be a comforting presence in the shock of sudden bereavement. The topic sentence comes as the last sentence in the parsha, but it could just as well have been the opening sentence: “The law of every creature … is to distinguish between the unclean and the clean. ” What not to sacrifice, what not to eat, and what not to say comes first, the awareness of what is unclean.
This is illustrated, as Beth Freishtat reminds us in her commentary in MyJewishLearning. com, that the immediate reaction to the sudden death of Nadav and Avihu was for Aaron to be silent, but for Moses, the brother of Aaron, to criticize and tell Aaron his sons died because they tampered with exactly the type of sacrifice G-d told them not to do. In consolation conversations, this is a no-no.
Aaron has to begin his grief journey in his own way. No one comes to listen to him. No one comes to hold his hand. Aaron’s wife, Elisheba, the mother of all four sons, is nowhere to be found in the parsha. We have to go to Midrash (Sevachim 102a) to confirm that for her, also, the pleasure she enjoyed that day turned from joy to mourning in a single moment.
This grief is very powerful. It is sudden and traumatic. Aaron is in the hyphenated grief of a bereaved-parent, a loss so powerful that no language has a single word for a parent who has experienced the death of a child, like we have a single word for widow, widower, or orphan. Plus, two of the sons have lost two of their brothers. We have no word to describe that also, no moniker for a sibling who has experienced the death of another sibling.
Not only is Aaron silent, but Aaron also implores his remaining sons to suppress their grief by not displaying any public signs of mourning. In Leviticus 10:6, Aaron tells them, “Do not let your hair grow untended, and do not rend your garments. . . . And as far as your brothers are concerned, the entire house of Israel will mourn the ones whom God has burned. ” Beth Freishtat continues: “We must make a place for grief in our communal lives. ” Shiva minyanim do exactly that.
Rabbi Gideon Isaacs, writing on the parsha for the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey in 2018, commented, “In grief, the mourner can become (understandably) closed off to everyone around them, even those who may provide solace and healing. At first, no one comes to comfort Aaron.
When Aaron begin the small steps of his recovery journey, even Moses, his brother, tries to help, this time with supportive language replacing destructive language. There is a modification of one word in Leviticus 10:12. Aaron initially closed himself off from his two sons who are still alive, still descendant kohanim. They are initially referred to as banim notarim, “leftover sons,” the word notarim being analogous to the sacrifices being offered. Moses modifies this by sensing Aaron’s desire to begin a recovery journey. Moses directs Aaron to prepare a meal using noteret, which is the remaining part of the grain offering from a sacrifice,. Noteret was a staple of the priestly diet. Moses tells Aaron to eat the noteret, unleavened, before the altar, “because it is most holy. ” Moses is now in the chaplain role, using Aaron’s language to help Aaron.
Along his new pathway, Aaron not only changes how he refers to his remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, but Aaron also begins to speak in their defense, in Leviticus 10: 16-20. As Rabbi Isaacs wrote of this transformation, the Torah [does here teach] is about dealing with loss. Rabbi Isaacs taught, “While the emotional shift Aaron makes requires tremendous internal work, it is one that allows for healthy coping with grief, sadness and loss. Our work is to find ways to see the blessings that remain, such as the love and support of those around us, not as spoiled leftovers, but as the holy remnant that will sustain us through our darkest days. ”
Using hurtful language is Lashon Hara (the evil tongue), a wrong but common language response to the shock of sudden bereavement. Moses says the wrong words to Aaron initially. Aaron looks at his two remaining sons with hurtful language initially.
The summation of this parsha, the command to distinguish between the unclean and the clean, applies to our spoken words as much as it applies to the tangible sacrifices we offer. Perhaps because of the dangerous inclination towards or possibility of Lashon Hara at times like these, is why the word “unclean” comes before the word
As Psalm 141:3-4 teaches, may we always learn to “guard our speech. ”
Ken yehi ratzon (may it be God’s will).
2. “Torah provides a roadmap for coping with tremendous grief,” Rabbi Gideon Isaaccs, Jewish Community Voice, Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey, April 18, 2011.
3. “Shemini: Mourning for Nadav anad Avihu,” Rav Kook Tprah, http://www. ravkooktorah. org/SHEMINI_67. htm
4. “Limits (Shemini 5780),’ Covenant & Conversation, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sack (z”l), https://www. rabbisacks. org/covenant-conversation/shemini/limits/
Barry Pitegoff is a Staff Chaplain at Bon Secours Community Hospital in Port Jervis, New York. Barry enjoyed thousands of hours of volunteer chaplaincy at hospitals, hospices, and prisons while he was vice president of market research for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism board. After retirement, Barry transformed into professional chaplaincy by taking a second Master’s Degree and two years’ of hospital internships. Barry was awarded the title of BCC, Board Certified Chaplain at the May 2019 conference of the NAJC (Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains). In 2020, Chaplain Barry was elected to the Board of NAJC, serves on Chaplain Review Committees, and facilitates a monthly national video call of Jewish hospital chaplains.