This week we will be reading from parashat Shemini. It begins with the ordination of Aaron and his sons through rituals performed as part of the sacrificial cult. This is immediately followed by a very brief, but very challenging story that is just three short verses: “Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Eternal alien fire, which had not been enjoined upon them. Fire came forth from the Eternal and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Eternal. Then Moses said to Aaron, “this is what the Eternal meant by saying: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy. And gain glory before all the people.” And Aaron was silent.”1 We are left wondering, why was Aaron, who was the spokesperson for Moses, who was so central in the sacrificial cult, silent?
According to the Midrash, “When Aaron realized that his sons had been summoned prematurely to the Heavenly abode since they were such tzaddikim that their punishment was extraordinarily severe, he stopped weeping and became silent. His silence was not a mere external show, but in his heart too, he accepted God’s judgment with serenity.” This interpretation would later be used as a model according to the Midrash, “Just as Aaron accepted the justice of God’s verdict, so do tzaddikim throughout the generations.” What a powerful theological statement. Aaron was silent because Aaron had nothing more to say. He merely accepted the fate of his sons because of their actions.
I’m sorry, but I usually don’t speak against the text. But in this case, I don’t buy it. The reason why I don’t buy it is because “Vayadom Aharon” does not mean “Aaron was silent,” a better translation is “Aaron was dumbstruck,” which means: so shocked or surprised as to be unable to speak.
Aaron just witnessed the death of two of his sons right before his eyes. He wasn’t silent because of God’s decree. He was silent because the pain he felt overwhelmed him. He was in shock, and who could blame him? His emotional pain perhaps even manifested itself as physical pain. In today’s world there are a lot of conversations around pain, pain management and addiction often related to chronic pain. But what about chronic emotional pain, especially as it has been exasperated by this ongoing pandemic? As Dr. Edwin S. Shneidman wrote about in his book the suicidal mind, “how much you hurt as a human being.”2
Our tradition may not have a lot to say about acute physical pain, but it certainly has a lot to say about chronic emotional pain.
Generally speaking, our tradition has had a positive view of pain as being good for the soul. But only when it leads to a reconciliation with God. This is part of the theology of Yom Kippur. The premise being that we are in pain and we seek out teshuvah as a way of healing ourselves to be in a better relationship with ourselves, our loved ones and with God.
The pain of grief is also viewed through a positive lens, not because of the death of a loved one, like Aaron’s sons, but because of what their life or lives meant to us. The idea being that there will always be a hole in our hearts, metaphorically speaking, but that by going through the Jewish process of mourning, we ritualize their lives and try to incorporate the best elements of our loved ones in ourselves.
But as we learn from Shemini, there is also the pain that results from the unfairness of it all. The possible capricious nature of the universe that there is incredible suffering in this world that cannot be explained. This is the pain Dr. Shneidman was talking about, “how much you hurt as a human being.” The chronic emotional pain that persists. pain is part of the human condition, but it does not have to be endured alone. Pain, both physical and emotional can be incredibly isolating and overwhelming if we let it be. But it does not have to be endured alone. In some cases, we can derive lessons from it and make important life changes and in other instances it is simply too much. But it does not have to be endured alone.
Once, a group of chassidim were sitting together in a dark basement, wrapped up in such a gathering. Another person was walking by and heard singing. Recognizing the melody, he called out, “Where are you?”
One of the chassidim called back to him and told him to come down to the basement. After taking several steps down the staircase, he hesitated because it was very dark. He called down again, “How can I go down there? It is dark. I cannot see where I am going.”
One of the chassidim sitting by the table answered him, “Do not worry, if you sit here long enough, your eyes will get used to the darkness.”
The chassid was telling him a simple physiological fact. When we sit in darkness for a time, our pupils expand and we can see better than we could when we first entered the room. But the elder chassid conducting wanted to focus on a different dimension. “That is precisely the problem,” he told his listeners. “If you sit in darkness long enough, you get used to it. You do not realize the need for light.”3
In our understanding of pain, may we find the strength to help ourselves and to help others see the light and to know that we do not have to endure our pain alone. As the coda to the old story goes, we are all in this together.
Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff
1 Exodus 10:1-3
2 Shneidman, ES. The Suicidal Mind. Oxford University Press; 1996. Appendix A Psychological Pain Survey, p. 173.