By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
One of the things my grandfather taught me was that no one suffers as much as a parent who loses a child.
He delivered this lesson to me more than fifty years ago after that his youngest grandchild, my baby cousin, had died. It was a sudden death, totally unexpected, and everyone was distraught. Grandpa took the news very hard.
He rose to leave the room, beckoning to me – his oldest grandchild, then fourteen – to accompany him. We both entered a small adjoining room in which there were a few sacred books, including a siddur. He opened the siddur, read from it for several moments, and then looked up to me, and tearfully whispered:
“There is nothing worse in the world than the death of one’s own child. A parent never recovers from such a blow. May the merciful God protect us all from such a fate.”
I will never forget those words. I remember them verbatim even today.
In this week’s parsha, Shemini, we read of just such a tragedy. On a bright and sunny spring day, somewhere in the Sinai wilderness, the Tabernacle is being inaugurated. It is an awesome spiritual experience in which “a divine fire descends from on high, in which all the people sing in unison, and fall upon their faces.” It is the moment of a peak experience for all the people, but especially for Aaron, the High Priest.
At that very moment, his two elder sons, Nadav and Avihu, step forward and commit a sacrilegious act that ruins the entire experience. Commentators differ widely as to exactly what was the sin of these two sons of Aaron. Scripture just says that “they offered God a strange fire, something He did not command of them.” God’s wrath was expressed instantly. “A fire descended from before Him and consumed them, and they died in the presence of God.”
A parent, a father, lost two children – suddenly and unexpectedly. And not in any ordinary set of circumstances, but in the context of an act of sacred worship.
What is Aaron’s reaction? Does he moan and groan and rend his clothing? Does he scream out in grief? Or does he vent his anger against the God who took his boys from him?
None of the above. “Vayidom Aharon.” Aaron is silent. The silence of shock? Perhaps. The silence of acceptance of fate? Perhaps. Or, perhaps, the silence which results when the range and depth of one’s emotions are too overwhelming to express in words. But silence.
Aaron remained silent about his grief for the rest of his life.
Soon after this episode in which my grandfather shared his wisdom with me, I had the occasion to read a book that taught me a bit more about a grieving parent. I read Death Be Not Proud by John Gunther in my English Literature class.
In the book, the author describes his own son, who was taken from him by a vicious disease. He describes his son positively, but realistically. And he rages against the disease and, in some way, against the divine being who took his son from him. He insists to Death itself that it be not proud about its victory over its victim, his dear child.
It has been decades since I have read Gunther’s book, but I will never forget those passages in which he insists that he will never recover from his loss; that the wounds of a parent’s grief for his child can never heal.
Many are the lessons which students of Bible and Talmud have derived from the sad narrative contained in this week’s parsha. But there is at least one lesson that every empathic reader will surely learn as he or she attends to the opening verses of Leviticus 10.
It is the lesson contained in the mystery of Aaron’s reaction when his sons are consumed by a heavenly fire. For within the deafening silence of “Vayidom Aharon” are the depths of the terror which every parent dreads and some parents have suffered; the dread of bereavement over the loss of one’s child.
As always, in contemplating darkness, light stands out in contrast. Reflection upon death leads to an appreciation of life. The story of the death of Aaron’s children should, if nothing else, enable us to appreciate all the more those of our children who are alive and well.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is the executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.