Thursday, April 16, 2015

Shemini 5775, April 2015, Mourning

1.By the rivers of Babylon, there, at last, we sat down, and we also wept, when we remembered Zion.
2.Upon the willows in its midst we hung up our harps,
3.For there our captos asked of us words of song and those who had shattered us, mirth: "Sing us one of the songs of Zion."
4.What? Shall we sing the song of the L-rd on the soil of the alien?
… (Tehillim 137, 1-4, trans. Hirsch)

Today we observe Yom HaShoah, the day of remembrance of the holocaust, as we prepare for Shabbos in a few days, to read the portion of Shemini.  How can we combine our unspeakable pain and loss with the joy of Shabbos, the elevation of the omer we are daily counting in anticipation of celebration, and even just with day to day life and its joys and sorrows?

In this parsha, two of the sons of Aharon haKohen die after entering the Holy of Holies. The story of their death is a very complex one which I am not nearly adequately educated to discuss (I have struggled with the Rashi for decades and still can't wrap my thoughts around it completely and consistently). But the aftermath of their deaths is also discussed here in the Torah. Aharon and his two surviving sons are continuing to prepare and offer the decreed sacrifices of the day, and of the dedication of the Mishkan. And the language of the Torah is beautiful and yet terrible. Moshe inquires "darosh darash Moshe," he inquires inquisitively, diligently, as to what has become of the sin offering, the goat offered as a mussaf Rosh Chodesh. He discovers that Aharon and his two remaining sons have not eaten the appropriate portion but have burnt it completely, and Moshe expresses anger at Elazar and Itamar.

The two young men remain silent. Their father Aharon, known for being a peace-maker, responds on their behalf directly to Moshe, "…behold, this day they have offered their chattas and olah offerings before the L-rd, and things such as these have befallen me that if I had eaten the chattas today, would it have been well-pleasing in the sight of the L-rd?" Yalkut Shmonei and Vayikra Rabbah explain that Aharon differentiated between their status as mourners relative to daily and regular offerings, and their status relative to the Inauguration offerings, those commanded just for the dedication of the new Mishkan.  Relative to every day things, they must function as kohanim and not show mourning. Relative to something uniquely special for all of B'nai Yisroel, the inauguration of the Mishkan marking a physical reminder of the relationship between G-d and man, the three men could not possibly help but show some sign of mourning, some reticence, some inner pain at their own losses.  They were tzaddikim, but they were human men. Moshe realizes that this is indeed the proper halachah, and that his anger blinded him to it momentarily, they are all reconciled, and Moshe is given special orders from G-d to directly instruct Elazar and Itamar in the dietary laws he next elaborates for all of the Jewish people (Vayikra Rabbah, Tiferet Zion).
My grandparents Otto and Ilse Gutmann at their home in Riverdale, NY,
with their first 9 grandchildren (more were subsequently born) c. 1980. They
escaped Germany to come the US in the 1940's and worked to rebuild a Jewish people.
We cannot help but feel pain, sometimes extreme emotional pain, loss, for we are human, even if we are tzaddikim. We sometimes remain silent, we sometimes answer back, we sometimes must fight back, even act preemptively. But we cannot do it in anger. We make our decisions based on Torah teachings, and on what is necessary for our survival and protection of each other. We neither forget nor ignore. We turn to G-d and ask for help and for His return to his home among us.

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