“Aaron’s Response to Tragedy–a Lesson for Yom Hashoah”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

It was intended to be the most jubilant day of Aaron’s life. Each day, starting on the 23rd day of Adar, Moses personally erected and disassembled the Tabernacle that had been completed several months earlier on the 25th of Kislev. The inauguration of the sanctuary, however, was delayed so that it could finally take place on a very special day, the first of Nissan.

On the first day of Nissan, Aaron and his four sons were consecrated as Kohanim (priests). It was on this fateful day, that the priests performed their sanctified service in the Tabernacle for the very first time. No longer would Moses or any other layperson be permitted to perform Tabernacle duties.

The priests, Aaron and his sons, threw themselves into their new responsibilities with great enthusiasm, offering up a special series of sacrifices for the consecration. Scripture informs us, (Leviticus 9:22): “Va’yeesa Aharon et yadav el ha’am vah’y’var’chaym,” Aaron raised his hands toward the people and blessed them. This was followed by Moses and Aaron entering the tent of meeting, and upon exiting, again blessing the people.

At this point, Leviticus 9:23 describes the deeply moving and inspiring scene that took place: “Va’yaira ch’vod Hashem el kol ha’am” and the glory of G-d appeared to the entire people. A fire then came out from before G-d and consumed all the offerings on the altar. When the people saw this, they burst out in song and fell on their faces.

Aaron had endured many years of suffering with his beloved people, Israel. He felt their pain as they were brutalized by the Egyptian enslavement. There were many difficult moments before he succeeded in the treacherous mission of confronting Pharaoh together with his brother Moses to plead on behalf of the persecuted Jewish people. After the liberation, he was forced to cope with the rebellious and manipulative people who sinned with the Golden Calf. Only now, does Aaron finally see his dream of living the rest of his life in the full service of G-d, come to fruition.

Unfortunately, Aaron’s dream is suddenly and tragically shattered. His two sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring holy fire pans to the Tabernacle and place an alien fire on them. A fire comes forth from G-d and consumes Nadav and Avihu, who die before G-d. Moses, trying to console his brother, says to Aaron (Leviticus 10:3), “This is what G-d meant when He said,’I will be sanctified through those who are nearest me.'” Aaron’s only response was silence.

After the bodies of the deceased are removed from the camp, Moses instructs Aaron and his remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, not to mourn, not to rend their garments and not to leave the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.

Although Aaron and his remaining sons are stricken with great grief, Moses tells his brother and nephews that they must continue with the sacred service, and even eat the sacred meat of the sacrifices. Despite the obvious difficulties of continuing with the inauguration ceremony, Aaron, Elazar and Itamar follow Moses’ instructions, with the exception of not eating the meat of the Rosh Chodesh offering.

Despite his personal pain, Aaron fulfills G-d’s and Moses’ bidding. Aaron, who remained silent in face of the grievous loss, decides that the greatest tribute to the memories of his late sons would be to continue with the service and complete it. In this manner all of Israel will see and know that Jewish continuity doesn’t depend on one or two individuals. To the contrary, the lives of individuals live on through the commitment and loyalty of the community.

Consequently, there is no record in the Bible of any memorial or monument erected to commemorate the lives of Nadav and Avihu. The memorial for Nadav and Avihu was the sacrifices that were brought, the worship that was rendered, and the commitment that was kept by those who survived.

In Jewish communities around the world, on the 27th of Nissan, which this year coincides with the night of Monday, April 20th and all day Tuesday, April 21st, Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, will be observed. On this day, Jews throughout the world will remember the six million innocent Jewish victims who were put to death at the hands of the vicious and barbaric Nazis and their collaborators. Fully 1/3 of the Jewish people perished in that great Shoah, paralleling the loss of 2/5 of Aaron’s family who were burnt in the conflagration from Heaven on the first of Nisan.

There is a profound lesson to be learned from the reaction of Aaron and his sons to their loss. The greatest tribute and most meaningful commemoration that may be accorded to those who perish Ahl Kiddush Hashem, for the sanctification of G-d’s name, is to continue living a committed Jewish life. The great philosopher and survivor of the Holocaust, Emil Fackenheim (1916-2003), said that after the Shoah, the 614th Mitzvah must be to assure the continuity of Jewish life.

I have long felt that only those who observe the rituals of Tisha ba’Av, the 10th of Tevet, the 17th of Tamuz and the fast of Gedalia, commemorating the destruction of the Temple, will properly remember those who perished in the Holocaust. It is the commitment to Jewish life, not mourning over Jewish death, that makes a difference. Those who live Jewish lives, assure Judaism’s continuity by not allowing it to be extinguished through indifference and assimilation.

In 1993, the Avi Chai Foundation, which was founded by the late, legendary investment banker, Sanford C. Bernstein, the famed Ba’al Teshuva known as Zalman C. Bernstein, issued a report that was prepared by the highly respected Guttman Institute, that examined the religious beliefs of the Jews of Israeli society. The report summary stated, “…contrary to what everyone thought, the religious and secular in Israel are not polarized. Virtually all Israelis tend to be traditional in their religious practice. They are also committed to the Jewish character of Israeli society, although they are critical of the religious status quo.”

Although some researchers and media observers felt that the wording of the summary was too optimistic, almost all accepted the accuracy of the report itself, confirming the favorable attitude of so many Israelis toward religion. The study reported that fully 2/3 of Israeli Jews mark Shabbat with some form of ritual observance, that more than seventy percent fast on Yom Kippur, and that eighty percent of Israeli Jews observe tradition. Sixty three percent of Jewish Israelis fully believe there is a G-d.

These conclusions shocked and astounded those who considered themselves experts on Israeli society, especially since there is a vocal community of leftist, strongly anti-religious, citizens of Israel, who are not insubstantial in number.

In response to this report one ecstatic Israeli columnist wrote that if he had the ability, he would hang a copy of the Guttman Report on the graves of each martyr of the Holocaust to prove that the Nazis did not succeed in their objective to obliterate Jewish life.

It is the commitment to preserve Jewish life, and to live as a Jew with great zeal and passion, as taught to us by the High Priest Aaron, that is, unquestionably, the most powerful and appropriate response to the Shoah.

May you be blessed.

The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Tuesday night, April 14th, and continue through Wednesday and Thursday, April 15th and 16th.

Chag Kasher V’samayach. Wishing all our friends a wonderful, joyous and meaningful Passover.

Yom Hashoah is observed this year on Monday evening, April 20 and all day Tuesday, April 21, 2009.