Parshat Shmini 2018
What a topsy-turvy period this is in Israel. After a month of celebration including a pre-spring holiday of drink and disguise called Purim, we tracked our ancestors’ footsteps, symbolically, as we remembered our beginnings and recounted the story of our exodus from Egypt around a table of good and plenty.
No sooner have we finished Pesach – we rush headlong this week into Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Day, dredging up memories of a different kind. Memories of atrocities that we swore will never happen again – and yet, now, even as we proclaim our sovereignty and strength, we see antisemitism proudly rearing its head, as if to say, You can’t wipe out 2000 years of prejudice and antagonism simply by setting up a state. We know who’s still responsible for all the ills of the world. (And even if they’re not, the Jews are the most experienced scapegoats in the world!)
But the rollercoaster ride doesn’t stop there. Another week will pass and we’ll find ourselves deep in mourning for the beloved sons, daughters, husbands, wives, fathers and mothers – who died fighting for our country. Yom Hazikaron – Memorial Day. Also depressing.
The remedy comes that very night, with the shift into Yom Haatzmaut, Independence Day, Israel’s ultimate holiday. True, this year the promos forecast dissent among politicians about who will speak at the torch-lighting ceremony, but that’s like counting how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It’s nonsense.
In parallel, our parsha also reflects a case of extreme fluctuations in mood. We begin with the sacrifice brought by Aharon the cohen, his sons and the elders of Israel. What joy and celebration when fire comes down from above and consumes the sacrifices, indicating that they are acceptable to God and the people are forgiven.
Immediately afterwards, even as the people are rejoicing, two of Aharon’s sons decide to bring a sacrifice. Again, fire comes down – and consumes them.
One explanation given for these deaths is that Nadav and Avihu brought a sacrifice on their own – not according to God’s command. This raises the question of which is better: giving when you are commanded to or when you want to.
I once argued that giving proactively, of your own volition, is better than giving by coercion, by command. Here’s the example used to show I was wrong. Today you see a poor person and decide to give him money. Next week, you see the person and decide not to give. Why? Because. It doesn’t matter. But if there is a command to give, you give, whether you want to or not. There is order and regularity not based on whims.
Adina Gerver of the Pardes Institute sharpens this point for modern times. Giving what we want may serve US more than the recipients. After the terrible tsunami of 2004, she writes, people donated generously to those suffering in the hot humid climate of southeast Asia. Donations included four-inch stilettos and wool blankets. When you are told what to give the results are better.
Back to our parsha. Aharon’s response to the death of two of his sons is silence. Perhaps he feels guilty – after all, he was a key figure in the creation of the golden calf and yet was seemingly exonerated. And note that the sacrifice that was brought included a calf (as if to say: remember Aharon what you did?).
Another possibility can be inferred from the word used to describe his silence. The word is not “vayishtok“, which means he stopped talking. The word is “vayidom“. Dr. Yael Shemesh notes that the root of this word in ancient Accadian means to mourn. In Hebrew it implies a deep all-encompassing stillness. Aharon was so overwhelmed by grief that there was literally nothing he could do, nothing he could say that would adequately reflect his emotions.
In today’s world, such a reaction is almost unheard of. Anything and everything evokes a response, and the louder the better. We see this in the incessant talk that surrounds our days of mourning no less than our days of celebration.
Some of the talk is necessary, for example, about the Shoah. Beyond the fathomless desolation that is felt by those who lost their loved ones and managed to survive and for whom there really are no words – it is necessary to publically recall what happened. Not only for those who don’t know, or those who cannot believe that their parents or relatives or neighbors behaved so reprehensibly. It’s to warn against a possible recurrence. Because there are people trying to revive the hatreds that fueled the Holocaust. Worse, they feel that the actions of 70 years ago were justified.
So talk we must. We have an obligation to remind the world, and ourselves, that killing people is wrong, and wiping out a people for whatever reason – is horrendous beyond words. It’s a message that is so obvious that it shouldn’t have to be said, but even a cursory glance at the news shows that evidently it does have to be said.
We live in hope. Holocaust survivors and those who survive the loss of their loved ones carry on so that the next generation can build and create on the foundations of those who came before us. And that is our lasting strength.