“And Aaron Was Silent” Parashat Shemini, Friday, April 10th, 2015

I was alerted to the sad news on Tuesday that an HUC schoolmate of mine had died after a valiant battle with cancer. Rabbi Vicki Sackser Tuckman was sort of the epitome of the modern Reform Rabbi. She was someone who grew up in the movement, where she was inspired to make her career in the rabbinate. She was young, energetic, and engaging. I’ve never seen a photo of her where she didn’t have a big smile on her face – whether it was with kids at Camp Harlam, at home with her husband and kids, on the bimah for a Bat Mitzvah, or even in her room at Sloan Kettering Hospital. It was telling that, in her dignity and openness about her illness, she even posted on Facebook pictures of the x-rays showing off what she called her “new hip.” The bone, eaten away by the cancer, had been replaced by rods and screws.
Her death, coming in the middle of Passover, resonated with me for another reason: It was at this season 17 years ago that I received my own cancer diagnosis, at probably about the same age Vicki would be now. It was during my junior year at seminary, and I had to return to HUC the following week and tell everyone at our class meeting that I had no idea what the future held as we all began our preparations for senior year and ordination.
You all know generally what did happen, because I’m here to talk about it. Apparently I had what they called an old-lady cancer, one that grew very slowly – so with aggressive treatment (surgery, chemo, radiation), I’m now both a survivor and a thriver. People look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them that I’m one of the lucky ones, and that I feel blessed. But when I hear news like I did this week, I know that it’s true.
I also know that it would seem unfair to people who loved Vicki. Why should one person’s cancer grow so slowly, and another’s spread so aggressively? Why should doctors at Sloan Kettering – one of the top treatment centers in the world – be unable to stem the tide of the disease? Why should tragedy befall a family where children are left behind to grieve?
The truth is that it happens because it happens. Because, as Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote more than three decades ago in When Bad Things Happen To Good People, “God does not cause our misfortunes. Some are caused by bad luck, some are caused by bad people, and some are simply an inevitable consequence of our being human and being mortal, living in a world of inflexible natural laws.”
But when a young person dies like this, there seem to be no words for the grief, much less for an explanation.
We see this on display in this week’s Torah portion. The title, Shemini, refers to the eight-day consecration ceremony of the high priests, Aaron and his elder sons, Nadav and Avihu, to serve God in the tabernacle. Aaron performs his duties as God commands – burnt offerings and sacrifices from the people to purge their transgressions.
The flames come forth from God to consume the sacrifice on the altar, and all the people fall on their faces, awestruck at God’s power.
Nadav and Avihu think it’s a pretty awesome sight. So they decide to do it themselves. They copy what their father did and offer up what the Torah describes as “aish zarah,” alien fire, which God did not request. The flames come forth from God, seemingly to once again consume the sacrifice on the altar – but it consumes the two men instead. All Aaron can do is look on in grief and horror. “Vayidom Aharon,” says the text. And Aaron was silent.
The old JPS translation reads “And Aaron held his peace” – that is, he knew he should not speak out against God’s judgment. But the word just means silence. The 15th-century Portuguese Torah scholar Isaac Abravanel suggested that Aaron was simply inconsolable.
Life went on for Aaron and for his family. They were forbidden by God from showing any outward signs of grief. His younger sons, Elazar and Itamar, stepped in to take their brothers’ places. And the Torah simply resumes its narration of the litany of offerings to be made at the consecration of the priests and the sanctuary.
Once – just once – Aaron opens up about his feelings, and only to his brother. At the very end of the chapter, Moses rebukes him for refusing to partake of the peoples’ sin offering. Aaron replies, “This day, they have brought their sin offering and burnt offering before God – but such things have befallen me! Had I eaten it, would God have approved?”
The Rashbam, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, interprets Aaron’s words to say: “How could I possibly have sat and eaten the standard offerings, when our celebration has been tarnished by this tragedy?” Moses silently acknowledges Aaron’s grief and approves of the way he expresses it.
The death of the young does indeed stun us into silence. Our lives will go on, just as Aaron’s did. Our confusion, or our anger, or our frustration, may manifest itself in all kinds of places, in all kinds of ways, as we work through our grief. All we can do is hope that our friends and neighbors and co-workers have the insight and compassion of Moses, to accept our sometimes-bizarre behavior for what it is.
Kein yehi ratson. May we learn to treat others with the compassion we would wish for ourselves. As we say together: Amen.
©2015 Audrey R. Korotkin


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