One of the things my grandfather taught me was that no one suffers as much as a parent who loses a child.
He delivered this lesson to me on a wintry day more than 50 years ago. The family had just broken the news to him that his youngest grandchild, my baby cousin, had died. It was a sudden death, and everyone was distraught. Grandpa, too, took the news very hard.
He then did something which surprised everyone present. He rose to leave the room, beckoning to me — his oldest grandchild, then 14 — to accompany him. We both entered an adjoining room where he opened a siddur, read from it for several moments, and then looked up to me, and tearfully whispered:
“There is nothing worse in the world than the death of one’s own 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 these words over and over again.
In this week’s Torah portion, Shemini, we read of just such a tragedy. Somewhere in the Sinai wilderness, 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 the moment of a peak experience, for all the people, but especially for Aaron, the High Priest.
At that very 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 was their sin. Scripture just says that “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 a child. Not just one, but two. 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 scream out in grief? Or does he vent his anger against the God who took his boys from him? Neither. “Vayidom Aharon” — Aaron is silent. The silence of shock? Perhaps. The silence of acceptance of fate? Perhaps. Or, perhaps, the silence which results when the range and depth of one’s emotions are too overwhelming to express in words.
Soon after this episode with my grandfather I read a book in my English literature class, “Death Be Not Proud” by John Gunther, which taught me a bit more about a grieving parent. In the book, the author describes his own son, who was taken from him by a vicious disease. He insists to Death itself that it be not proud about its victory over its victim, his dear child.
It has been decades since I have read Gunther’s book, but I will never forget those passages in which he insists that he will never recover from his loss, that the wounds of a parent’s grief for his child can never heal.
Many are the lessons which 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 as he or she attends to the opening verses of Leviticus 10 — the lesson contained in the mystery of Aaron’s reaction when his sons are consumed by the fire. For within the deafening silence of “Vayidom Aharon” are the depths of the terror which every parent dreads — the dread of bereavement, of the loss of one’s child.
Our reflection on death ultimately leads to an appreciation of life. As we embark upon this new pre-Passover spring season, let us celebrate and appreciate all of our own offspring, may they live and be well.
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.