One thing my grandfather taught me — and he taught me more than anyone else — was that no one suffers as much as a parent who loses a child.
When I was 14, we received the news that my baby cousin, his youngest grandchild, had died. It was a sudden death, and everyone was distraught. Grandpa suddenly beckoned to me to accompany him into an adjacent room. He opened a siddur, read from it for several moments, then tearfully whispered to me, “There is nothing worse 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.”
A lifetime of experience as a counselor has confirmed the truth of those words again and again. In Shemini, we read of just such a tragedy.
One day, in the Sinai wilderness, the Tabernacle is being inaugurated as “a divine fire descends from on high [and] all the people sing in unison and fall upon their faces.” It is a peak spiritual experience for all, but especially for Aaron, the high priest.
At that moment, his sons Nadav and Avihu commit a sacrilegious act. Commentators differ as to what the sin was; scripture just says, “They offered God a strange fire, something He did not command of them.”
God’s wrath is expressed instantly. “A fire descended from before Him and consumed them, and they died in the presence of God.”
What is Aaron’s reaction to losing two of his children suddenly and in the act of sacred worship? Does he scream out in grief? Vent his anger against God?
No — “Vayidom Aharon.” Aaron is silent. The silence of shock? Of acceptance of fate? Or maybe the silence that results when the depth of one’s emotions are too overwhelming to express in words.
If my grandfather’s sage words are true, Aaron remained silent about his grief for the rest of his life; he might have echoed Jacob: “I will go down to the grave in my agony.”
That same year, as a high school sophomore, I read a book that taught me about a grieving parent — Death Be Not Proud by John Gunther.
The author describes his son — positively but realistically — who was taken by a vicious disease and rages against the disease and the divine being who took his son from him.
I will never forget the poignancy and power with which the author conveyed his painful emotions and his insistence that he will never recover from his loss, that the wounds of a parent’s grief for his child can never heal.
There is at least one lesson that every empathic reader will undoubtedly learn from Leviticus 10. It is contained in the mystery of “Vayidom Aharon” — the deafening silence of a grieving parent.
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, if nothing else, enable us to appreciate all the more those of our children who are alive and well.