A teaching from Torah on grief and on joy
April 07, 2018
In this week's Torah portion (at least according to the Reform lectionary), Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu bring "strange fire" before God and are consumed by divine fire. In the haftarah assigned to this week's Torah portion, from II Samuel, a man named Uzziel places his hands on the Ark of the Covenant and God becomes incensed and strikes him down on the spot. Two deeply disturbing stories of people who apparently sought to serve God, "did it wrong," and were instantly killed.
The haftarah tells us that when Uzziel is killed, David becomes distressed and feels fear, and changes his plan for the Ark of the Covenant to come to Jerusalem. Instead he diverts it elsewhere. Only three months later does he bring the ark to the City of David with rejoicing, and music, and leaping and whirling before God. Meanwhile, in the Torah reading, Aaron's reaction to the death of his sons is existential silence. He says nothing. Maybe in the face of such a loss there's nothing one can say.
I don't have a good answer to the question of why God would behave this way. I read these passages instead as acknowledgments of a painful truth of human life: sometimes tragedy strikes and we can't understand why. These passages remind me that sometimes when we meet unexpected loss we have to withdraw, or change our plans, because the thing we thought we were going to do no longer feels plausible. And sometimes loss is a sucker punch, and words are inadequate to the reality at hand.
Yesterday was the seventh day of Pesach -- according to tradition, the anniversary of the day when our ancestors crossed the Sea into freedom. Midrash holds that when the sea split, everyone present had a direct and miraculous experience of God. The Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael (Tractate Shira, Parasha 3) teaches that in that moment, everyone encountered God, "even the merest handmaiden." Another source (Tosefta Sotah) holds that even toddlers and babies witnessed Shechinah, the divine Presence.
Yesterday we re-experienced the crossing of the Sea, when we were redeemed into freedom and encountered God wholly. We sang and danced on the shores of the Sea, celebrating redemption and transformation, filled with hope. Today's Torah portion crashes us back into reality. How can we integrate the sweetness of Pesach, the miraculousness of the Song at the Sea, with this?
For me the answer lies exactly in the gear-grinding juxtaposition. Torah reflects human life and human realities. This is human life: wondrous and fearful, painful and glorious. It would be nice to have a waiting period between joy and grief, a chance to adjust to the psycho-spiritual and emotional shift between one and the other, but we don't necessarily get that luxury. Authentic spiritual life asks us to feel both of these wholly: our shattering, and our exultation.
Maybe those who constructed our calendar wanted to remind us that rejoicing and grief can fall of two sides of a single coin -- and that both can open us to encountering the Holy. The Kotzker rebbe points out that "there is nothing so whole as a broken heart." Sometimes we find wholeness not despite our brokenness, but in it. And when we feel broken, we can seek comfort in our tradition's ancient hope for redemption: whether we frame it in messianic language, or simply in the hope that life can be better than it is right now.
So here's my prayer for us today, arising out of these texts. When grief and loss intrude into our times of joy and celebration, may we have the wisdom of Aaron, to know when we need to fall silent because no words can convey the shattering of our hearts. And may we also have the wisdom of King David, to know when we need to shift our plans and give ourselves time to heal... so that when we are ready we can turn our mourning into dancing, and our silence into song. Kein yehi ratzon / may it be so.
This is the d'var Torah I offered at my shul this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)