Appropriate Ways to Mourn

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As everyone knows, when you go on a trip, no matter how excellent the experience, the greatest reward is often the return. After all, “home is where the heart is,” and all those clichés. I returned from my most recent trip in time to attend Torah study yesterday morning. I was surprised at how much I missed it. As it happened, yesterday’s study of Torah was the most contentious and the most emotionally arousing of any I had ever attended – not only for me, but for many of the participants.

This evening, Yom HaShoah begins – the day for remembering and mourning the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. That was the ostensible reason for focusing on the small section of the Torah that was chosen for study. More formally, the day of remembering and mourning is called: Yom Hazikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah (“Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day”).

But I, and I suspect many other Jews, tend to forget it is about remembering heroism and not just the huge number of tragic deaths. Further, I remember my deliberate or insensitive obliviousness to the Holocaust altogether when I was a callow youth. Not so young that I should not beat my breast for my ignorance. I was then married with one child and was in graduate school studying philosophy. I also was a tenant of a house at 586 Spadina Avenue, which I rented from a Holocaust Survivor who had moved to Montreal. He had told me about The Black Book he had compiled and self-published on the murder of Hungarian Jews in the last year of the War.  He could not sell the copies, nor could he even give them away. They were piled up in boxes in the basement. He asked modestly that, if I had a chance, I find places and people to give the book.

I went down the basement and retrieved one copy. It sat on my shelf for a year. I never even cracked the binding to skim it. Yet I remained convinced after reading Hannah Arendt that Jews had not resisted and had been complicit in their own death. When I had a chance to check directly with a Survivor and with his account to confirm or falsify Arendt’s, I failed to do so. In my many moves, I even lost track of the copy of The Black Book that I had. On Yom HaShoah, I remember not only the Holocaust, but my own ignorance and indifference to the resistance of the Jews. I remember my silence.

I mourn the blindness of my mind. I did not know that the date of remembrance originally chosen was the 14th of Nisan to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and would only learn of this when my family and I visited the Warsaw Ghetto Museum on a kibbutz in Israel a dozen years later — two decades after the holy day had been declared. However, the day originally chosen fell immediately before Passover, so the final date for the holy day was almost two weeks later, the 27th of Nisan, eight days before Israel Independence Day. Tomorrow, I will attend a memorial service.

However, other than Aaron’s silence, it is difficult to make a connection between the passage of Torah chosen for study and Holocaust Remembrance Day. The focus of discussion was virtually entirely about mourning personal loss and the appropriate way to do so — not about a horrendous collective loss. The passage goes as follows:

Leviticus 10: 1-3

And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said unto Aaron: ‘This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron held his peace.

God just killed the two eldest sons of Aaron, the High Priest, and Aaron stood in silence.

Moses, instead of wailing at the death of his two nephews and commiserating with Aaron at his terrible loss, merely used the occasion to reprimand Aaron and remind him that the way God reveals His holiness (and His power) is by insisting that people, and, more precisely, the priests, do exactly what God tells them. God’s instructions were to be followed to a “T”.  Neither Aaron nor Moses remonstrated God for His utterly disproportionate response to the failure of Nadab and Abihu to follow God’s precise instructions. The two had sinned for using incense in the fire pans to start the fire. God insisted that He and He alone would light the sacrificial fire. Further, only the incense from the sacred bronze altar was to be utilized. They had offered before the Lord alien fire. They had sinned for not following God’s protocol. God smote Nadab and Abihu. Moses chastised Aaron. Aaron stood in silence.

It gets worse. Moses ordered that the two be buried outside the camp. Eleazar and Ithamar took the places of their two older brothers. Moses told them and their father, Aaron, “Do not bare your heads and do not rend your clothes, lest you die and anger strike the whole community.” (Leviticus 10:6) When the sister of Aaron and Moses, Miriam, died (Numbers 20:1), there is no account of mourning as there was when Sarah, Abraham’s wife, died (Genesis 23:2) or when Aaron himself subsequently died as reported in the same Parsha Chukas that recorded Miriam’s death. Abraham wailed at Sarah’s death. The whole Israelite community wailed at the death of Aaron. The Torah records Miriam’s death with silence.

But, at least, there was no prohibition against mourning and warnings of dire consequences if one did not follow God’s instructions. Mourn not. Bewail the alien fire not the death of Aaron’s two sons. Failure to do so would have stark consequences, not only for the leaders of the Israelites, but for the entire community. Was the silence “appropriate”?

Rashi said it was. In fact, God rewarded Aaron for his silence by subsequently addressing him and not Moses to pass on the commandment not to engage in sacrifices if drunk. The implication is that Nadab and Abihu were drunk when they employed the “alien fire.”

On the other hand, in contrast to Rashi, Isaac ben Judah Abravanel (1437-1508) condemned Aaron’s callousness. Aaron’s heart had turned to stone when he did not weep or mourn as a grieving father usually does. Because he had lost his soul, he was speechless. Was silence a sign of deadness, of a loss of soul, or did the silence connote “inner peace and calm” (R. Eliezer Lipman Lichtenstein)? Was the silence and forbearance a sign of Aaron’s holiness because he refused to chastise God for his own personal great loss?

Was Aaron shocked into silence or did he retreat into an inner blissful state of being? Baruch Levine argues that Aaron both mourned and did so in silence. He was not in shock for יִּדֹּם means to moan and mourn, as well as to do so in silence. Aaron mourned inwardly while the community wailed outwardly lest Aaron as high priest be defiled by participating in the normal way in a grieving session. In Braakhot 6b, Rab Pappa went further and insisted that maintaining silence in a house of mourning is precisely the appropriate response. In Job 2:13, silence is perceived as the proper and respectful response to horrendous grief. Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite “sat down with him (Job) upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spoke a word unto him; for they saw that his grief was very great.” (Job 2:13) Rab Yohanan (Moed Katan 28b) taught that “comforters are not permitted to say a word until the mourners open a conversation.”

Is silence the appropriate response to horrendous loss? What is appropriate for a mourner who suffers a great loss to do? What is the appropriate sentiment of a friend or a relative to be expressed to one who suffers such a great loss? Is silence the right thing to do? I have my own experiences to guide me.

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