Parshas Shemini 

Rabbi Berel Wein



How are we to view and deal with the unavoidable tragedies that occur to all of us in our lifetimes? No one really escapes unscathed and untroubled from life in this world. The nature of human beings is that we are all mortal and therefore sadness and tragedy are always waiting for us in the wings. As such, the story of the death of the two elder sons of Aaron as recorded for us in this week’s Torah reading has personal relevance to all of us. 

In fact, all of Torah deals with our current lives and circumstances, even if perhaps it is not visible to our limited eyes and minds. But this startling narrative of tragedy and death striking the great family of Aaron and Moshe suddenly and without warning, marring the great day of anticipated celebration at the dedication of the holy Mishkan/Tabernacle, strikes us as being particularly poignant and depressing. This is especially true because the tragic events were so unexpected and, to a great extent, remained inexplicable at least in ordinary human terms and understanding.  

There is an obvious lesson that the incense offering that had the power to arrest plague and save lives also had the ability to be lethal if used incorrectly and without G-dly command and instruction. The deeper, transcendent and overriding message of understanding the heavenly system of justice in the world, both on an individual and national basis, certainly escapes our understanding and thinking. 

What can certainly be learned from the words of the Torah is the reaction of Aaron to this shocking tragedy. The Torah records for us that Aaron remained silent. Jewish tradition holds that this type of reaction to tragedy is a correct and worthy one. 

I have written often about the value of silence as exemplified in Jewish life and tradition. But here in the face of tragedy and unequaled personal pain, silence is perhaps the only reaction for human beings. Truth be told, there is really nothing that can be said to explain the judgments of Heaven. 

This is one of the reasons that in visiting the house of a mourner one should not speak unless and until the mourner has spoken. People should avoid saying things that are banal and trite for they bring little comfort and consolation to those who are bereaved. The entire book of Iyov teaches us the futility of railing against Heaven or of attempting to explain rationally what is essentially irrational and beyond the scope of our understanding. 

It is interesting to note that throughout the world hospitals contain signs that ask for silence. This is not only for the comfort of the patients but is also a reminder that there is really nothing significant to say. Sympathy comes from the heart and not from the tongue. The greatest comfort one can bring to another human being many times is merely one’s own presence without having to express any words. 

Shabbat shalom.