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Shmini 5783                    April 15, 2023

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

There is nothing more personal than mourning. When we confront the death of someone we love, no matter if that person is family or just a friend, we can feel our heart tearing apart and the emotional pain that can rival physical pain. How we handle death is extremely personal. Some will cry openly and some only cry in private. Some will respond with anger, and some respond by withdrawing from even their closest friends. Some will call out in a primal scream, and some will remain silent, the cry of pain heard only in their soul.

In our parsha, Aaron, brother of Moses, newly appointed High Priest of the Mishkan, the tent where God meets human beings, Aaron experiences the sudden death, by God, of his two eldest children. The Torah struggles to explain why a fire from God kills these two young adults, but what is clear, is that when Aaron hears about their death, he remains silent.

This is not the only place where the Torah records a reaction to death. Jacob, when he is told the lie about Joseph’s death, cries out that he will mourn his son until the day he dies. When King David hears about his son, who is in open rebellion with his father, when he hears the news about his son’s death in battle, David cries out “My son, my son, would that I could have died in your place.” Or we can look to the matriarch Rivka, realizing the hurt and anger of Esau could bring about the death of Jacob, she sends Jacob away saying that she could not even think about mourning them both on the same day. But Aaron, when Aaron sees his two sons dead, Aaron is silent.

Bex Stern-Rosenblat the North American representative of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, notes that this is an extraordinary change from when we first meet Aaron earlier in Exodus. Remember, Moses at the burning bush declares to God that he is slow of speech, he would not make a good impression on Pharoah to convince him to let the People of Israel go. God tells Moses that he should bring his brother, Aaron, as his spokesman. It is Aaron that does all the talking in Egypt. Aaron is anything but silent. As the book of Shemot/Exodus progresses, Moses begins to speak more, and Aaron noticeably says less. When we get to the incident with the Golden Calf, Aaron can only stutter excuses about how the Golden Calf came to be. When Aaron becomes High Priest, he says even less. It is his office that does the speaking. When he wears the breastplate and robes of his office, Aaron does not have to say much at all.

Ms. Stern-Rosenblat writes, “The loss of Aaron as a brother is devastating for us. The story told in Genesis is of brothers learning to get along. We read in Midrash Tanhuma that, “all brothers hated each other. Cain hated Abel . . . Ishmael hated Isaac . . . And the tribes hated Joseph . . . But…Moses and Aaron, of whom it is said: ‘Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together.’ (Psalms, 133:1) They loved and cherished each other.” We go down to Egypt through the hatred of siblings and come out of Egypt due to the love and cooperation of Miriam, Moses, and Aaron.”

As Aaron’s two sons lie dead, Moses can’t even see the pain in his brother. Moses is too concerned with purity issues. Moses sees the high priest, but he does not see his brother. It is clear in the Torah that Aaron is in pain. Aaron skips the celebratory meal after the purification offering and when Moses reprimands him for not fulfilling this duty. Aaron snaps back at his brother, “such things have happened to me, had I eaten the purification offering do you think that God would approve?” The Torah says that Moses let it go. Aaron is in pain and Moses does not see his brother, he sees only the office, he sees only the high priest. Moses backs off but he does not stop to comfort his brother.

What can we learn from this story of brothers? What lessons are there for us in this tragedy in our parsha? Is the Torah telling us that we should be like Aaron, and stand silent in the face of death? When our life is shattered even by the unspeakable pain of losing a child, are we to learn that the best approach is to stand silent, to keep our grief inside?

Rabbi Eli Kaunfer of Yeshivat Hadar notes that this is not the only place where Judaism seems to direct us toward stoic acceptance. He writes, Aharon’s complex reaction to grief—more layered than originally assumed by the report of his silence—mirrors a complexity in the understanding of the opening to the Mourner’s Kaddish.  The prayer opens with the statement:

יִתְגַּדַּל וְיִתְקַדַּשׁ שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא


May God’s great name be magnified and sanctified.


This is often understood as a stoic act of praise.  In one of the earliest English introductions to the Mourner’s Kaddish, from a 1905 siddur, the prayer is framed as follows: “And may all the bereaved and mourners, in all their trials and tribulations, in all their disappointments and sorrows, be ever ready to rise and sanctify Thy name.” The goal of the opening line of the Mourner’s Kaddish is thus to praise God despite our grief.”

Our liturgy takes a strange turn when it comes to death. We are called upon to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. No sooner is a body placed in the earth; the mourners are called upon to recite the Kaddish. But the Kaddish makes no mention of death. It does not name the person who died. It does not affirm the pain of the mourners. It has mourners recite, in their hour of grief, to acknowledge the greatness of God.

It is not as if the Sages and Rabbis of Jewish history did not experience death. Death was all around them. They knew war and the national and private mourning that comes with battle. They knew anti-Jewish hatred that all too often erupted in death and destruction for Jewish communities. There were entire communities who mourned their dead by declaring a fast day in memory of the martyrs who died al Kiddush HaShem, who died sanctifying Gods name through their deeds.

Rabbi Kaunfer notes that this stoicism can be found in many places in Rabbinic literature, but he teaches that this silence is a mistranslation of what Judaism teaches about death. He writes about our parsha, “Aharon’s reaction to the sudden death of his two sons is complex.  At first, he maintains silence, which a midrash reads as indicating his acceptance of the justice of their death.  But he also exhibits anger and frustration, and refuses to consume the hattat in a state of mourning.  He does not only accept his fate, but also acts to express his grief.  Similarly, our experience of the Mourner’s Kaddish may at times indicate stoic praise of God.  But in its context, the prayer invites us to plead rather than praise.  We experience the loss of our loved one as a microcosm, a poignant symbol of all that is not right in the world.  And in recognizing the lack in our present world, we ask God to hurry the redemption, to usher in a world where grief will be no more.” 

Judaism would have us cry out in our grief, just as Jacob and King David do in the Bible. To confront death is to confront, with painful clarity, that all is NOT right with the world. When we face death, and someone asks us “How are you doing?” It is not required that we reply, “I am doing fine.” Or “I am doing OK.”  Aaron teaches us that we are not in violation of any Judaic standard when someone asks us, in the face of our grief, “how are you doing?” that we respond, “how do you think I am doing? I am in deep pain.”

Being a mourner means not being able to face our day-to-day routine. Shiva has the community bring services to the home of the mourners. It is a public duty to not leave a mourner alone. This is the time when we need the support of our community more than ever. It is the community’s responsibility to bring food and comfort to those who sit shiva. We need to help them through their pain by helping them remember the blessings in the life that is now gone. I know there are many people who cut short the days of shiva for all kinds of reasons. It is not for me to judge their decisions. But I have never met anyone who did not feel, at the end of the week, that shiva had helped them prepare to go on in life in the face of death.

Death reminds us that our world in not perfect. There is death and grief in this world and there is the unspeakable pain that comes with it. In the face of death, everything else is just an inconvenience. Death is a part of the natural world. Being alive means we have to confront the agony that comes with death. In our Pesach Haggadah, we end the Seder with Had Gadya, a cute song that reminds us that there is a remedy for whatever happens in life. Dogs bite cats, sticks beat dogs, fire burns sticks. Water quenches fire, Oxen drink water, a Shochet can kill the ox and the Angel of death will come for the Shochet. But the song ends with the promise that God will come and destroy the Angel of death. In a fully redeemed world, there will be the death of death.

So, we recite the Kaddish, not as a stoic verse that forces us to accept the will of God as we confront death, but we recite it asking that the time when God will be “magnified and sanctified” should come soon. God should bring about the death of death so we will no longer need to suffer such pain. We ask God to bring about a time when “grief will be no more.”

May God comfort all those who mourn the loss of someone they love. May the time come when God will be glorified in the world for bringing about a world without grief.

… as we say Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784