He was an old man and came from a world very different from mine. And yet he taught me more than anyone else ever did. One lesson he delivered to me more than 50 years ago was that no one suffers as much as a parent who loses a child.
He was my grandfather, and the family had just broken the news to him that his youngest grandchild, my baby cousin, had died. It was a totally unexpected death, and everyone was distraught. Grandpa took the news very hard.
He then did something that surprised everyone. He rose to leave, beckoning to me, his oldest grandchild, then 14, to accompany him into an adjoining room in which there were a few sacred books. He opened a siddur, read from it for several moments, looked up to me, and tearfully whispered: “There is nothing worse in the world than the death of one’s child. A parent never recovers from such a blow. May the merciful God protect us all from such a fate.”
I will never forget those words, and a lifetime of experience in the vocation of counseling has confirmed the truth of them over and over again.
In Shemini, we read of just such a tragedy. On a sunny spring day, somewhere in the Sinai, the Tabernacle is being inaugurated. It is an awesome spiritual experience in which “a divine fire descends from on high, in which all the people sing in unison and fall upon their faces.”
It is a peak experience for all, but especially for Aaron, the high priest.
At that moment, his two elder sons, Nadav and Avihu, step forward and commit a sacrilegious act that ruins the entire experience. Commentators differ widely as to exactly what their sin was. Scripture just says, “They offered God a strange fire, something He did not command of them.”
God’s wrath was expressed instantly. “A fire descended from before Him and consumed them, and they died in the presence of God.”
A parent, a father, lost two children. Not through a long illness, but suddenly, unexpectedly. And not in any ordinary set of circumstances, but in the context of an act of sacred worship.
What is Aaron’s reaction? Does he moan and groan and rend his clothing? scream out in grief? vent his anger against God?
None of the above. “Vayidom Aharon.” Aaron is silent. The silence of shock? Perhaps. The silence of acceptance? Perhaps. Or perhaps the silence that results when the range and depth of one’s emotions are too overwhelming to express in words.
If the sage words that my grandfather shared with me in my early adolescence are true, Aaron remained silent about his grief for the rest of his life. Had he used the words of his ancestor Jacob, he could have said, “I will go down to the grave in my agony.”
Soon after my grandfather shared this piece of wisdom with me, my English literature teacher assigned a book that taught me more about a grieving parent: Death Be Not Proud by John Gunther.
The author describes his son, who was taken from him by a vicious disease, positively but realistically. He rages against the disease — and in some way against the divine being who took his son. He insists to Death itself that it be not proud about its victory.
I recall the book’s poignancy and the power with which the author conveyed his painful emotions. I will never forget those passages in which he insists that the wounds of a parent’s grief for his child can never heal.
Many are the lessons that students of Bible and Talmud have derived from the sad narrative contained in this week’s Torah portion. But there is at least one lesson that every empathic reader will surely learn from the opening verses of Leviticus 10.
It is contained in the mystery of Aaron’s reaction to his sons’ death. For within the deafening silence of “Vayidom Aharon” are the depths of the terror every parent dreads and some have suffered.
As always, in contemplating darkness, light stands out in contrast. Reflection upon death leads to an appreciation of life. The story of the death of Aaron’s children should enable us to appreciate all the more those of our children who are alive and well.
As we embark upon the post-Passover season, with all the springtime symbols of life and renewal, let us celebrate and appreciate all of our own offspring, may they live and be well.