In this week’s parsha we read about the sudden tragic and untimely death of Aharon’s two sons Nadav and Avihu, the air apparent to Moshe and Aharon, the leaders of Israel. There have been many reasons given of why they died, however, perhaps it might be interesting to explore and possibly learn a lesson on to reconcile with passing of a loved one or prepare for our departure after a hundred and twenty years.
Most people are afraid of death and dying, and almost none of them ask themselves, “Why?” “Why are we afraid of death and dying?” It seems that something that must happen to everyone should have gained a degree of acceptance that mitigates the fear. Yet, we are afraid.
Some will explain that the fear of death is the fear of pain. Granted, that is true for those who unfortunately die in pain; however, there are many who peacefully pass away in their sleep, seemingly in painless journey to the next stage of their existence. Yet, we are afraid.
There are those who will explain the fear of death as the fear of the unknown. In general we fear change and we fear the untried or untested; yet, there are many who thrive on adventure and exploration, and it seems that the after-life is the greatest adventure possible. This adventure is ingrained in us as a result of being exposed to popular science fiction storylines involve exploring “to boldly go where no man has gone before”, the afterlife.
Others will explain the fear of death as the fear of not living. Life is filled with opportunities for accomplishment and love. Who wouldn’t wish to be present at their grandchild or hopefully great-grandchild’s wedding and beyond? Who wouldn’t wish the added time to learn one more page of Talmud, do one more Chessed (kindness), hear one more symphony or nigun (tune), read one more classic, or admire one more majestic display of G-d’s natural grandeur?
Perhaps, one is afraid of dying because he missed an opportunity. Being sensitive enough to grasp the subtle message that G-d is trying to convey throughout our lifetime might not be so easy. Perhaps, that’s our task in this world. So it seems like before we continue with dealing with death one must know how to live!!!
The Talmud relates a story of Rebbi Eliezer ben Dordia who was a womanizer to say the least. He was under the impression that every woman was permissible to him. One of his conquests made a chance remark one time, with a snickering expression, alluding to the fact that his actions in his lifetime will never enable any repentance to be accepted and he’ll never see the gates in heaven. In one’s lifetime there are few, very few times, where words pierce the heart. Her words had such a powerful effect on him that he sat down on a mountain and cried until he died. A heavenly voice proclaimed, “R Eliezer did repentance and has entered the World to Come”.
What is mind boggling is what the Talmud conveys next. The Talmud continues describing how Rebbi cried after hearing the story. Everybody in the study hall wondered why was he crying? He should have been joyous towards R’ Eliezer. R’ Eliezer ben Dordia had raised himself from the degrading cesspool in life, to a place in heaven in an instant, wow!! R’ Eliezer ben Dordia was able to capitalize on the feeling in which he was so overwhelmed by the words of his companion in sin.
So why was Rebbi crying when he heard the story of R’ Eliezer? Rebbi didn’t cry for R’ Eliezer’s sake, but rather for all of humanity. Each one of us experiences a moment of awakening that is capable of impacting one’s entire life. Yet only one in a thousand, in fact, utilizes the moment. Most of us miss a chance; that is the very reason why we were put on this earth. This is why Rebbi cried.
Perhaps, this is what we should be afraid of when our time is up. There will be nothing more embarrassing than to face the Creator and be seen one’s potential that was not taken.
In order to better understand the concept of death one should be aware of an interesting topic in our Torah.
“Tell the Israelites to procure for you a red heifer that is free from every blemish and defect and on which no yoke has ever been laid…” (Bamidbar. 19:2ff).
One of the biblical conditions for the rebuilding of the Third Temple in Jerusalem may have perhaps been met recently when a red heifer was discovered in the United States.
In January 2014 a red heifer, or Parah Adumah, was born to a cow herding family in an undisclosed location in the US, who wish to see the animal used for the purity service during the preparations for the rebuilding of the Third Temple.
The family has reportedly not marred or maimed the animal in any way, nor will they be using the animal for work or feeding it any growth hormones. All this to comply with Jewish law of keeping the animal as nature created it. It should be under strict watch until it reaches 3 years old.
The red heifer is a cow whose coat has no more than one single hair of any color other than red, and whose skin, hoofs, and eyelids are all also reddish. The Red Heifer is an extremely rare creature. The uniqueness of the red heifer, aside from its irregularity in nature – there has not been a red heifer born in Israel in over 2,000 years.
Strict rules also apply to its color. Two single hairs of a color other than red automatically disqualify it from becoming a Red Heifer. A Red Heifer candidate that was discovered in 2000 was disqualified after two black hairs were found on it.
Likewise, a cow that meets all other criteria, but is older than four is disqualified. The present calf has a long way until, if at all, it will become a real Red Heifer.
The discovery of a red calf that could potentially become a Red Heifer-Parah Adumah excites many Jews who believe that Moshe prepared the first Red Heifer and Mashiach will prepare the last one.
Parah Adumah is the classic example of a Torah law which seems to have –at least for us — no rationale. When a person comes into contact with a dead body he becomes ‘tameh’, “spiritually impure”, and the only way for him to regain his state of purity is to be sprinkled with the water which was mixed with the ashes of the Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer, which make him ‘tahor’ -“spiritually clean” once again. The topic of the red cow is very confusing: although it can purify the impure, the people who are involved in the process of preparing and administering the ashes of the Red Heifer become impure. Therefore, it remains the quintessential ‘chok’ – “a law without an apparent reason”.
Or Hachaim Hakadosh says, that Parah Adumah is the mainspring of performing commandments without rationale and therefore its labeled “the Chok of the Torah” [Bamidbar 19:2] . This Commandment embodies the very essence of Torah. Why? Because Torah –no matter how much we delve into its laws and no matter how much we try to understand it — ultimately presents a religion which one must practice even though he does not understand the why and the wherefore. The basis of accepting Torah is “We will do and we will listen” [Shmot 24:7]. One has to be prepared to accept even without fully understanding. That is why the verse emphasizes “This is the Chok of the Torah”. This law personifies Torah. This law teaches what Torah is all about: we must do it even if we don’t understand.
Our next question is: why is this particular law used to teach us this principle?
Forbidden mixtures (sha’tnez) are a chok; Milk and Meat is a chok; there are dozens of ‘chukim.’ Yet this is THE law that represents the fulfillment of Torah even when we do not understand. Why Parah Adumah?
Rabbi Yissachar Frand saw an interesting interpretation in the Shemen HaTov. Our Sages tell us that this world received a terrible punishment called ‘Death’ as a result of the incident with the Tree of Knowledge. Up until Adam and Chava ate from that tree, there was not supposed to be anything in this world called ‘Death’. Once they violated the prohibition to consume the fruit of that tree, Death descended into the world.
What was the key behind the sin of the Tree of Knowledge? It was so that “You may be like Elokim — knowing Good and Evil” [Bereishis 3:5]. The motivating factor behind that original sin was because people wanted to know ‘Why’. The snake fueled Chava’s curiosity.
Man does not want to be a robot. He has curiosity. He has a desire (ta’avah) to know ‘Why’. That passion led to the sin of the Tree of Knowledge. As a result of that we received an appropriate punishment — death. How does one deal with death? When one has confronted death, he needs to subsequently confront the Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer. The Parah Adumah represents our inability to know why.
That is why this is the appropriate punishment for the sin of the Tree of Knowledge. Man’s burning desire to know why – led him to death, and death makes man deal with the Parah Adumah, which teaches him that he cannot always know why. That is what life does about — sometimes not know why. That is why specifically this mitzvah represents the essence of what Torah is about: doing, even without necessarily knowing why we are doing.
At times of personal tragedy it is common for the individual to question G-d’s foresight. We feel that pain and loss justify the challenges and excuse the occasional lack of civility. Certainly, we cannot judge those who challenge G-d or society when it is due to personal loss or pain. However, even pain requires a perspective. The story of Nadav and Avihu provides the perspective.
In the aftermath of their deaths, the verse states, “Vayidome Aharon – and Aharon was silent.” What does Vayidome mean? It means acceptance. Aharon’s silence did not indicate a lack of emotion or feeling. It revealed the profundity of his personal devotion and sense of responsibility. As the Kohain Gadol he did not have the luxury of venting his pain. At the time of his inauguration, at the time of the lighting of the Mizbeach, he would not voice feelings that challenged G-d and served his own emotional needs. Instead he was silent.
Aharon was not the only one who was silent. Elazar and Isamar, the brothers of Nadav and Avihu, were also silent. They too had suffered a terrible personal tragedy and they too remained silent. Moshe was their uncle and teacher. He too had suffered a terrible personal loss. He too contained his feelings and remained silent.
In 11:2 Rashi writes, “At that moment, G-d’s directive to teach the Bnai Yisroel the laws of the Kosher and the non-Kosher animals, fish, and fowl was directed to all of them (Moshe, Aharon, Elazar, and Isamar) equally. Why? Because they were all equal in their silence and they had all accepted G-d’s decree with love.” G-d rewarded the family of Aharon with the opportunity of teaching the Bnai Yisroel the laws of Kashrut. Why was this their just reward for their silence in the face of personal tragedy?
Kashrut is one of classic “Chukim – statutes.” Although the Torah tells us that the laws of Kashrut are intended to “Make us holy – to set us apart from the other nations – to be Kadosh – nevertheless, it does not reveal why each individual item was permitted or forbidden. Why beef but not ham? Why Gefilta fish but not lobster quiche? Yet, Kashrus, more so than any other category of Mitzvot, dominates the religious life style of the Jew.
As with all the Mitzvot, personal preference does no enter into the equation.
Kashrus is all the time. At home, the office, on airlines, in the Far East, and Queens Blvd. Kashrut is the standard of the observant Jew.
Just as the Kohain must serve the nation and not himself, so too, must the Jew be identified by the standards of our nation and not his personal cravings.
Because Aharon, Elazar, and Isamar set aside their personal pain and grief and accepted G-d’s devastating decree in silence and love, they merited joining Moshe in teaching the laws of Kashrut.
There is no doubt that a loved one’s passing will always be missed. When my father passed away, Rabbi Yitzchak Aminoff, who had lost his father when he was a teenager, said to me that he still feels a certain pain even now and he’s a great grandfather.
Sitting shiva for my father, in Israel, where many of my relatives reside almost twelve years ago, I will never forget an incident. I dosed off briefly and I saw a tall bald man approach me. He bent over and touched my hand; it was very comforting as I quickly awakened. I looked around and no one was in the vicinity except my mother and uncle, who had also dosed off, sitting shiva next to me. The moment was a mystery till recently when I realized that as a child I always envisioned G-d as Bald. I kind of sensed that I knew, back then that it was who it is but I was in denial. If one tells you that he had contact with G-d then I equate him with the individual in the fifth avenue station who constantly brags he has conversation with G-d. Regardless if it was HE or just a desperate subconscious leap for comfort, I was in tremendous pain, considering how close I was with my father.
Many have said to me “death is part of life”. We brought this punishment upon ourselves. But, now we see there is an added punishment that pertains to “tree of knowledge” devastation and that is “why” will never be answered until the future days where all our questions will have an explanation and G-d will lift the terrible sanctions and we will, not only, be death free, but also reunite with our deceased loved ones…..Amen.