For months, they barely spoke to one another. They felt dejected – they were dejected; G-d had made it clear that He was unhappy with them. He didn’t want to have anything to do with them.
But slowly, they started to rebuild their lives. Children started to get together with one another. Soon the adults were socializing as well. They realized they could not go on like this forever.
The Jewish People, mere months after being told by G-d that He wanted to sever all ties, they started to come out of their shells and rebuild their lives. Yes, they felt weighed down with the guilt of having failed G-d so pathetically with that foolish Golden Calf, but pain, guilt, and shame have a way of dissipating over time.
They came together over a shared project; they would build a home, a meeting place for the people to converse again, and a resting place for G-d’s presence. From Yom Kippur through the month of Adar, for almost half a year, they toiled on this rehabilitation project, until finally, finally, the day had come.
For seven days they watched at a distance as Aharon and his four sons were trained by Moshe. No one was allowed in, but people would gather to peek through the curtains to watch the Kohanim train for the big day. Throughout the camp, there was a powerful smell of incense, and a steady column of smoke emanating from the Mishkan’s yard. The smells and the sounds created an electric energy as people eagerly anticipated the grand opening of the Mishkan and an opportunity to start again.
Finally, the eighth day – inauguration day – arrived. And not just any day! It was Rosh Chodesh Nissan, the one-year anniversary from the day that G-d had told them, back in Egypt, that they would be going free. There was palatable excitement in the air. It was a challenging year, with many setbacks, but they knew, this year was going to be different starting now.
Well before dawn, the courtyard was filled to the brim with hundreds and thousands of Jews packed together tightly. An elderly man started humming a tune, and before long, the entire Jewish People joined in. A new tune! Thanking G-d for breathing new life into their weary souls.
At the crack of dawn, Aharon, the Kohein Gadol made his way to the altar. The crowd stood in a hushed silence.
Slowly, methodically, deliberately, Aharon went through the Avoda, the service of the day. Until finally he was done. It was time.
They were told by Moshe that at this precise moment G-d would show them that He has forgiven them, that they were being invited to start anew.
They looked up, they saw a most incredible sight; a fire, a huge heavenly fire, descended from the sky onto the altar, the Mizbeiach Hanichoshes.
And as they fell to the floor, spontaneously, to bow and give thanks, their hearts feeling like they would burst from emotion – a terrible scream pierced the air.
Chaos, confusion. But within seconds, the news spread. Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aharon, two up and coming leaders, were dead.
They had entered the Holy of Holies, on their own, without permission from Moshe and Aharon. According to some, they were intoxicated. No one knows for sure. But now they were lying on the floor of the Holy of Holies; unmoving, lifeless, dead. And just like that, their joy turned into mourning.
I paint this picture for obvious reasons. The parallels are so clear, I don’t think I need to pain you and me with spelling it all out. Israel is in a state of mourning. After so many deaths, after a year of distance and pain, finally, we thought, the country was ready for some healing. So many were vaccinated! Some music, some spirit, some achdus, some unity! But it all came crashing down. Literally. And instead of joy, we have funerals; parents, grandparents, and children; young sweet, innocent children.
Moshe turned to his brother; his brother, who just a moment before was filled with such joy, G-d had forgiven him! He, the one who had cast the gold, G-d had publicly demonstrated that there was hope! And now…
Moshe put his arm around his brother, and with tears in his eyes, told him,
הוּא אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ, וְעַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד
What Moshe was trying to convey is up to debate. But please notice how Moshe did not lay any blame on Nadav and Avihu. Not because they were not guilty. They were guilty! Our Sages make that abundantly clear. And there were lessons to be learned. In the next passage, G-d instructs Aharon to be careful to never enter the Mishkan intoxicated. But Moshe does not use the moment to teach; he uses the moment to comfort.
We are so quick to develop a hot-take; to pontificate, to say, I told you so. Personally, when I realized the gravity of what took place, late Thursday night, I couldn’t stop reading articles and posts, each with their own perspective. But I’ll tell you, it was like a fly going after the light; every “brilliant” perspective was like a thousand claws scratching against a chalkboard. The less words the better. That’s true for a shiva house, that’s true for when a friend is in pain, it’s true for every tragedy. Moshe suggests some positive meaning and he is silent.
How does Aharon respond?
He does not.
He is silent.
What’s he thinking? We could only speculate. Anger at his children? Sadness over his loss? Bewilderment directed at G-d? Likely all of the above.
I spoke to a friend yesterday who was fuming; how could they have allowed the event to happen knowing full well that it’s so dangerous?! Was he right for being angry? Of course he was.
I spoke to a family member who was beside himself; what does G-d want from us?! How could this happen?! Was he right for being confused? Of course he was.
I know for me I initially had no emotion at all. It was just too overwhelming. Was I right or was I wrong?
There is no appropriate emotion
What Aharon taught us is to make space for emotion; whatever emotions arise.
What Aharon taught us is to bite our tongue and reflect; to introspect individually, to hold back from discussion, because any discussion loses the intensity of the raging inner world.
May we learn from the non-judgmental comfort of Moshe and the emotion-filled and introspective silence Aharon.
I would be remiss if I did not share the following idea I recently learned from the great Izhbitzer (h/t Batya Hefter):
Our parsha begins with a commandment to inform the Kohanim not to become impure by coming into contact with the dead. Impurity, or what we describe as tumah, is not just a ritual state, it’s a state of mind. When we contact death, when come face to face with nature, in all its random ugliness, it could be a debilitating feeling psychologically and it can also cause us to question our faith. Where is the judge? Where is the jury? How do innocent people get crushed to death as they celebrate a holiday? How do children, who travel to Meron to taste some ecstatic worship, to have an experience that will inspire them their whole lives, how do those children not return home to their parents?!
That’s tumah. Tumah is confusion. Tumah is the hiding of G-d behind the veil of nature.
And to that, G-d tells us all, לֹא-יִטַּמָּא Do not allow that spirit of confusion to overwhelm you. There is a judge. There is a jury.
But notice how this message is taught in an atypical fashion. G-d does not say, daber, to speak this message. Rather, the name of our parsha is emor; speak softly, it’s a whisper.
We believe that G-d runs the world but we also know that’s it’s hard to see, and so we struggle to boldly assert our beliefs. Instead, we whisper. “I don’t get it. I don’t see it. But I believe.”
And that’s it. I didn’t want to speak today. I didn’t have the energy to do so. Like we learned from Moshe and Aharon, words are not always appropriate. I just wanted us all to remember that we have a history of tragedy and a history of dealing with tragedy; with compassion, without pointing fingers – at least not today, with silence, allowing whatever emotions arise find their place, and with a whisper of faith.
May the families of those mourning somehow be comforted and may those who were injured have a refuah sheleima.