Shemini: Sacred Silence
What can I say? Perhaps nothing.
No one expects to lose a loved one suddenly. There might be legal plans, powers of attorney or insurance policies, but the experience of death itself is not something you can plan for. There’s no rehearsal for tragedy, or a practice for your feelings when death comes knocking and quickly takes away a person you love so very much. In this time of crisis under COVID-19, with another week of isolation and all of our attempts to “flatten the curve,” we can sense the presence of death, hidden just out of our periphery. The fear and the anxiety of that presence, the uncertainty that it causes, the deep feelings of expected pain and the attempts to gird ourselves against it — is overwhelming if you think about it too much. And if death does come and someone we love leaves us, through all those expectations and loaded emotions waiting for this moment, it still feels sudden and tragic. What was only glimpsed is not in its fullest presence. What does one say? Perhaps just silence. Perhaps nothing.
The Passover Holiday of singing and celebration concludes this week. On the seventh day of the Holiday, Jews globally read the section of the Torah called the “Song of the Sea” where Moses, Miraim, and the people exalt God for standing up the sea like bulwarks allowing the ragged former-slaves to walk to their freedom. In the midrash, their singing is cut short by God, who upon seeing the Egyptians cast like stones upon the shore, says to angels, “How dare you sing when my creations are dying.” (T.B. Megillah 10b) God silenced the angels, because even admidst our greatest joys, our liberation from two hundred years of slavery, death had to enter the world. God, in the Jewish mind, the Creator of Life, is saddened when love fails and living perishes.
Jewish spiritual life reflects this deep truth. We end our daily services with Mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer that doesn’t mention death, but reflects a moment when we do remember those who have died. We say Kaddish every day, even in our happiest moments and silliest celebrations. Passover is not different. Just as the Holiday comes to a climactic conclusion, we add the prayers of Yizkor, the Jewish memorial service, said four times a year to remember our loved ones. What can we make of these emotional vacillations between joy and grief, between expectation and realization, between liberation and consternation?
The Torah reading for the Shabbat after Passover, Parsha Shemini, gives us the right response. In the reading we find the only narrative in the Book of Leviticus. It is just two sentences long. Just after Aaron committed the first public ritual sacrifice upon the altar and blessed the people for the very first time, his sons Nadav and Avihu attempted an unsanctioned offering. The Torah says, “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 LORD a strange fire, which God had not sanctioned. A fire came forth from the LORD and consumed them; there they died before the LORD.” (Lev. 10:1-2)
Celebration turns into tragedy. The two young men die, leaving Aaron and Moses stunned. All the planning for this day, the liberation from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai, the construction of the Tabernacle, all of it comes down to this moment. Moses turns to his brother and says, “This is what the LORD meant when God said, ‘Through those near to Me show Myself to be holy and gain glory before all my people.’” Aaron was silent. (Lev 10:3)
The death of Nadav and Avihu creates a void in the community. Every death does. Moses, trying to comfort his brother, tries to justify their death in the most Jobian way by saying that God’s holiness is somehow justified because of this tragedy. The words ring hollow in Aaron’s ears, as they should. He teaches us the profundity of grief.
What does one say? Perhaps nothing.
The Sages and commentators offer many explanations to justify why Nadav and Avihu died. It’s either they weren’t wearing the right clothing (Vayikra Rabba 20:9), they did not wash their hands, they did so without Moses’ permission, or they were drunk. (Midrash Tanchuma Acheri Mot 7). Others say they refused to get married. (Vayikra Rabbah 20:10) Still others hold that they were impatient to become leaders. (Midrash Aggada) Each of these sages tries to explain why this tragedy occurred, especially during such a joyous occasion. I learned once when there are many explanations for a thing, it is because no one explanation suffices. I think that applies here too. None of the commentators’ answers are satisfying theologically, and none of them provide comfort to a grieving parent. Despite the magnificent palace of ideas laid out by tradition, we’re still left feeling that they are less than the sum of their parts.
What I have learned about grief was not from a textbook or a philosophical tome. I learned it from being in the hospital, in the shiva house, and at the open grave. What I believe is that the void created by death cannot really be filled with words. Our attempts to justify death, or God, or justice, cannot plumb the fathoms of grief. Emmanel Levinas, the Jewish Philosopher and Holocaust survivor, reminds us that no purpose can be derived from suffering. There is no utility in tragedy. Like the rabbis who come after him, Moses bumbles about looking for an answer when perhaps the best answer is God’s answer at the mouth of the sea and Aaron’s answer at the mouth of the Tent of Meeting. When death knocks, when tragedy strikes, we are always unprepared. Rather than giving comfort in a torrent of words, equivocations and justifications, perhaps the best response is sacred silence. In this time of isolation and celebration when we are supposed to be our most joyous, but death encroaches upon us, let us be like God and be present to each other like The Omnipresent, to hold space for each other like The Space, and to remember those we’ve lost like The Rememberer.
What can we say? Perhaps nothing.
Stay safe, stay home, stay loving.