Drash on Parashat Shemini (Parah)
Rabbi Kim Ettlinger
Temple David, Perth, Western Australia
Accepting What We Cannot Understand
Nadav and Abihu in this week’s parasha die! Our commentators go to great lengths to try to understand or to give a reason why.
Vayikra (Leviticus) 16:1, a few chapters after this week’s parsha offers a reason, “the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before Adonai, and died.” An answer that still leaves us wanting. Rabbi Yose ben Halafta explains in the Midrash, Numbers Rabbah 2:23, believes it was because they came too close to the Holy of Holies, or God’s presence in the wilderness. But, in all honesty, this is just a guess on his part. Afterall, that is midrash.
Every reason is given from drinking wine, not wearing the appropriate clothing, not preparing with hand and foot washing or even because they didn’t have children (Leviticus Rabbah 20:9 f). Or, for not being married, or arrogance, giving legal decisions in Moses’ presence, power hungry and so forth (Leviticus Rabbah 20:10f). Of course, all these reasons and statements are given in the name of great Talmudic scholars to give credibility to these ideas.
The reality is that these ideas or reasons are to explain the inexplicable.
As humans, we too strive to understand what we cannot understand, what doesn’t make sense. And, I”m not speaking of logic, or of science, or maths. I’m speaking of what happens in life that is beyond comprehension. I’m referring to the big questions of life, of death, of health and meaning. What some of us call the BIG questions. Perhaps, the search for meaning, or understanding.
On the visceral and personal level, we seek meaning and to understand when we are faced with hardship, with pain and with grief. My mind and heart immediately turns to all those struggling in the Ukraine and whose lives have been shattered as they see their loved ones die, as innocent children lost, their homes obliterated. We ask why? We can answer with political reasons. But when someone asks Why me? Why not the person standing next to them, and who may have been saved by the proverbial ‘skin of their teeth?’ Any answer we may offer seems contrived and just doesn’t cut it.
The answer is the same in our local community, when a loved one is struck with illness, or faces loss of a through illness due to number of things, whether through cancer, or Covid or … you name it… or anytype of loss, not necessarily health related… Why me? Or, quite simply, “why?” is asked And, sometimes there isn’t an answer… And, it is again, we turn to our parashah, Sh’mini for an answer - Moses tries to console Aaron on the loss of his sons with words, but it is through Aaron that we learn the most important lesson. Aaron responds, not with his own words per se, but with what he does. The text teaches us in Leviticus 10:3
“וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן הוּא֩ אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֨ר יְהוָ֤ה ׀ לֵאמֹר֙ בִּקְרֹבַ֣י אֶקָּדֵ֔שׁ וְעַל־פְּנֵ֥י כָל־הָעָ֖ם אֶכָּבֵ֑ד וַיִּדֹּ֖ם אַהֲרֹֽן׃
Then Moses said to Aaron: "This is what יהוה meant by saying: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people. And Aaron was silent.”
With two little words - very simple but with profound meaning. Sometimes, we have no response, but to listen with our hearts and our minds. For our words will fall dramatically short.