“The Unending Mourning”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemini, we read of the tragic deaths of Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Abihu. The deaths occurred on the greatest day of Aaron’s life, the day that the Tabernacle was to be consecrated and Aaron and his sons were to be inducted into the priesthood.

The Torah, in Leviticus 10 states, that the Nadav and Abihu took firepans and placed a “strange fire” on them that G-d did not command. Suddenly, a fire came out from heaven and devoured them both alive before G-d. Moses said to his brother, Aaron,(Leviticus 10:3), “This is what G-d meant when He said that ‘I will be sanctified with those who are closest to Me.’” Aaron’s response was total silence.

After Nadav and Abihu’s bodies were removed from the holy sanctuary, Moses instructs Aaron and his remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, not to display any signs of mourning. Leviticus 10:6 states, רָאשֵׁיכֶם אַל תִּפְרָעוּ וּבִגְדֵיכֶם לֹא תִפְרֹמוּ, וְלֹא תָמֻתוּ וְעַל כָּל הָעֵדָה יִקְצֹף; וַאֲחֵיכֶם כָּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל, יִבְכּוּ אֶת הַשְּׂרֵפָה אֲשֶׁר שָׂרַף ה׳ , “Do not leave your heads unshorn, do not rend your garments, that you not die and He [G-d] become wrathful with the entire assembly; and your brethren, the entire House of Israel shall bewail the conflagration that the L-rd ignited.”

The commentators are perplexed by the statement that, “Your brethren, the entire House of Israel shall bewail the conflagration that G-d ignited.” The verse seems to indicate that the entire House of Israel, meaning the Jewish people collectively, has a responsibility and obligation to mourn for the sons of Aaron. The verse does not even seem to set limits. Does “the entire House of Israel” mean that the generation of Nadav and Abihu are supposed to mourn, or that all future generations throughout Jewish history are to mourn?

Many commentators see this as an obligation for all future generations to mourn the death of Aaron’s sons. The Netziv,  in his commentary on the Bible, Ha’amek Davar, asks how is it possible to expect the People of Israel to mourn for thousands of years for Aaron’s sons? After all, there is a great ongoing debate regarding whether, because of their actions, Nadav and Abihu deserved to die a premature death (see Shemini 5776-2016).

The Ha’amek Davar avers that during periods of national mourning and sadness, people may recall their own personal losses and use those moments of national mourning to mourn for them.

The Torah Temimah suggests that the participation of all of Israel in Aaron’s pain will make it easier for him to endure, and eventually achieve consolation for his great loss.

Rabbi Shimshon Dovid Pincus in his commentary on the Torah, Tiferet Shimshon, develops these thoughts, poignantly and with great insight.

Rabbi Pincus points to the introduction that is often found in the traditional High Holiday Machzor to the Torah reading on Yom Kippur, which indicates that כָּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל , the entire House of Israel, every Jew, until the end of generations, must mourn for the death of Aaron’s sons.

Yet, notes Rabbi Pincus, this requirement seems to go against normative Jewish tradition. Referring to the interpretation of the rabbis (Talmud, Moed Katan 27b) on Jeremiah 22:10, “Do not weep for the dead king,” the sages state that one should not cry exceedingly for the dead or overly wail their loss. The rabbis even set limits: three days for crying, seven days for eulogizing, thirty days for not cutting ones’ hair and not wearing freshly laundered garments. Beyond that period of mourning, the Al-mighty declares, “Are you more compassionate than I am?”

Rabbi Pincus points to the traditional custom of giving the mourners their first meal of eggs and lentils, foods that are round-shaped, underscoring that the circle of life is repetitive and that while the sun sets it also rises again. The new generation somehow makes up for the losses suffered in the previous generations. Therefore, one must not overly mourn the losses.

Why then, do the rabbis seem to say regarding Nadav and Abihu that there are to be no limits to the Jewish peoples’ mourning?

Rabbi Pincus points out that limits are set for mourning for those who pass away in a normal manner. However, those who pass away prematurely are forever missed because they were unable to achieve their potential or their greatness, and hence become irreplaceable. One who loses a hand, will always feel the loss of that hand.

Rabbi Pincus points out that there are certain types of losses for which mourning is never-ending, such as for the myriad lost in the destructions of the Temples, lives that were uprooted, never to be replaced. Therefore, even though many centuries have passed, mourning will always continue. The small numbers of Jews worldwide is an indication that those who perished for the sanctification of G-d’s name can never be replaced.

Some of the losses are not only irreplaceable, they have also unfortunately opened the floodgates of evil against the Jewish People. The mourning for the broken tablets and the burning of the Torah by Apostomus on Shiva Asar B’Tammuz, made the Torah more vulnerable than ever before. The sanctity of the Torah was breached, and the dread of harming it by the enemies of the Torah was much reduced.

Once again, we see eternal lessons that are found in the seemingly insignificant nuances of the Torah text. These lessons are powerful and relevant, and are truly eternal lessons for all ages and for all generations.

May you be blessed.