Parshat Shemini: Changing cemeteries into sanctuaries
This week's reading places before us the sobering tale of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron. The grand-opening & dedication of the Tabernacle is in full swing. God has consumed the first offerings and gloriously appeared before all the people. Into the midst of this ecstacy step forth the newly-consecreated priests, Nadav and Avihu. They bring forward an incense offering, an aish zarah – a foreign fire which had not been commanded. The flame of God bursts forth, literally 'consuming' the brothers as surely as it had consumed the burnt offerings. A tragedy has occurred in the midst of ecstacy. The Tabernacle, God's earthly dwelling-place, will for all time be linked with and founded upon this event, the incomprehensible death of two sons.
As I share this I am still reeling from the latest scenes of tragedy here in Israel. Still fresh in my mind's eye are the harrowing images of the Fogel Massacre, the blood-stained slaughter of children. Still vivid in my imagination is the shock of shrapnel that exploded at the bus-stop a short walk from my house. A piercing howl of “Why!?” rises in all of our hearts. Why such death? Why the slaughter of sons and daughters?
Surely, at its best, the establishment of the State of Israel is a modern-day erecting of a Mishkan, an abode within which God may dwell. And just as the dedication of the Mishkan is somberly marked by the death of Aaron's children, so too the otherwise extraordinary founding of Israel has been marred and scarred by the tragic loss of sons and daughters. To live in Israel is to encounter both the rapturous joy of arrival, as well as the wrenching pain of violence and loss.
How are we to reckon with such unsettling admixtures of promise and pain? How are we to respond to the deaths of children, either by the hand of God or by the hand of enemies? While it would be anathema to offer pat answers to such sensitive questions, we are nonetheless compelled to grapple with how best to respond to such incidents of national loss. Where better to turn for wisdom on this complex issue than to Moses' words of instruction to Aaron upon the death of his sons?
Moses tells Aaron that he and his sons are not to let their hair grow long or rend their clothes in mourning. Rather, the mourning is meant to be performed by “Achachem kol beit yisrael” - your brothers, your brethren, all the house of Israel. They are told to “bewail the burning which God has kindled.”
The text here seems points out two responses, one by the priests, and the other the “brothers, the entire house of Israel”. These are like two archetypes within us. There is the priestly part of us which is instructed not to mourn. This is perhaps the voice of pure faith, the part of us that intuitively knows the mystic truth of the rightness of Divine will, bewildering as it may be to human senses. This is the voice in us that accepts that even this tragedy is the brutal but necessary finger of God.
And then there is the part of us that is represented by the brothers, the House of Israel. This is part of us that is familial and emotive. This part feels deeply and is compelled to mourn. Lest the priest's mystic truth desensitize us to the searing pain of loss, or anesthetize us to the important task of tikkun olam, repairing the world, this brotherly love for one another prompts us to lament, to weep over the precious lives which have been torched and taken. This is the heartfelt task of brothers and the family home of Israel. What's more, it is precisely when we touch that emotive and expressive point of mourning and pain, that we ourselves become brothers and sisters in a completed household. When we mourn eachothers' losses as our own, we merit the deepest sense of being an essential members of the house of Israel. In our shared mourning we become family. And somehow in the middle of our loss and lamentation, the very house of God is established and the divine dwells in our midst.