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Parashat Shemini 5780

April 17, 2020

“Silent” Tribute to the Dead of Covid-19
A D’var Torah for Parashat Shemini
By Rabbi David Markus

Spiritually speaking, what should we say amidst 120,000 covid-19 deaths? Surely there must be something we should say, some right response – right?

If these questions land a gut punch, if they rouse gnawing emptiness, if they jumble emotions and singe the soul, then we might just barely begin to imagine Aaron in this week’s paresha (Shemini). How could the High Priest of Israel lose his sons Nadav and Avihu to divine fire, and then respond with silence – vayidom Aharon (Leviticus 10:3)?

This timely question, about one of Torah’s most difficult texts, touches our core both as individuals and as spiritual leaders – especially now.

But let’s be clear: our question’s covid-19 context isn’t so unusual in a global sense. According to the United Nations, over 165,000 people die every day from all causes (e.g. age, illnesses both acute and chronic, war, poverty, homicide, suicide). Immense and tragic as the world’s mounting covid-19 toll is, fewer have died of covid-19 so far than die on any one single average day.

Covid-19 seems most spiritually transformational not because of its tragically large number of victims, but because covid-19 rivets public attention in ways that disrupt the background din of daily death and daily life. Upending our routines and fraying our defenses, covid-19 reveals everyday realities about society, psychology and spirituality that have been hiding in plain sight.

Among these everyday realities are that all of us are mortal, all of us are vulnerable to potential killers we can’t see, all of us are existentially connected, and all of us are responsible for helping save life.

Even if society’s first response is to socially distance (“spiritually distance”?) from these truths, our next response is far more important. Our calling is to embrace these spiritual realities and wisely leverage them as tools to enrich and sanctify life.

Covid-19 reminds that the immensity and mystery of death are screens onto which people will project most everything about spiritual life. Death’s projection screen displays our beliefs about God’s existence and fairness, the meaning of life and the meaning of our lives, the deceased’s character and our own character, love and gratitude, guilt and regret, and much more.

Maybe that’s why awareness of mortality is an organizing principle of Judaism and most world religions. Torah leveraged fear of death to imbue awe and compliance. Pirkei Avot 3:1 offered that awareness of death can inspire us to live ethical and upstanding lives. (“Where are we going? To a place of dust, worm and maggot!”) The Amidah liturgizes a God sovereign of “the dead and the living” – in that order.

Our mortality is so spiritually potent that Talmud first confronts death in Talmud’s first chapter. Talmud records that death’s many forms range from difficult to gentle; that the most “difficult” death is asphyxiation by “croup … like ropes at the entrance to the esophagus” (eerily like death by covid-19); and that the most gentle death is a divine “kiss … like drawing a hair from milk” (B.T. Berakhot 8a). For all that Talmud offers on death, we have more questions than answers.

Same about Aaron’s “silence.” His sons died by fire and divine fire at that – not a gentle death, and spiritually wrenching in the extreme. So wouldn’t Aaron, as a father and a spiritual leader, therefore have more to say rather than less, much less nothing at all?

Maybe that’s why tradition bent over backwards to explain Aaron’s silence. Talmud venerated the deaths as if to diminish their sting: did Nadav and Avihu give their lives to honor God and in turn become “God’s honored ones” (B.T. Zevahim 115b)? Did this knowledge “console” Aaron, so he had nothing to say (Sforno, Lev. 10:3)? Did Aaron subjugate his fatherhood to his spiritual role or even sibling rivalry with Moses, accepting the deaths silently to merit the “reward” of receiving God’s word alone rather than via Moses (Rashi, Lev. 10:3)? Did death’s inexplicability leave Aaron nothing to say but what Job later would say: “God gave and God took: blessed be the Name of God” (Hatam Sofer, Lev. 10:3; Job 1:21)? Or did Aaron have much to say but feel so overcome that he emptied himself sobbing until finally he fell silent (Ramban, Lev. 10:3)?

We see society’s responses to covid-19 reflecting in all of these explanations. We’ve venerated some of the dead, especially self-sacrificing healthcare professionals exposing themselves by serving others and then getting burned. Our waves of applause aren’t silent, but there’s much more to say. As the pandemic’s death apex ripples around the world, some leaders are silent about the dead while competing for political rewards of praise, blame avoidance, or limited supplies. Some hold that covid-19 is nature’s response to unwise or even unholy living, proving God’s immensity and our sheer powerlessness: in response, we can only accept silently.

But what most touches me are the tears. Sometimes in the quiet of a month in isolation, I can hear the soul sobs of my students, my congregants, my seminary, my state, my country and my own self. I hear in those cries not silence but loud booming. How could it be otherwise – for me as a citizen, for me as clergy? All the more so for leaders! All the more so for parents!

If so, then the English translation of Torah’s narrative about a “silent” Aaron seems wrong – painfully, perversely, damagingly wrong. Indeed, the pivotal verb vayidom has many Tanakh meanings. It can evoke “stillness” or “murmuring,” like the “still small voice” Elijah heard only after the wind, earthquake and fire (1 Kings 19:12). It can evoke inwardness, hearing loudly the boom of death (Ezekiel 24:17). It can evoke personal submission to God’s yoke (Lamentations 3:28). And yes, it can suggest “comfort,” like a weaned child (Psalm 131:2).

To the tragic death of his sons, the Aaron of my spiritual projection responded with all of these. After the wind, earthquake and fire of divinity’s raw power, Aaron came to an awed stillness that was anything but silent or strategic. He felt loud inwardness. He sensed an immense power that transcends all human words. In the grief of a father turned spiritual leader, Aaron poured himself out until all that was left was an exhausted calm of stillness. Only then could he hear the Voice.

We and our society have much to grieve. There is much to say, and far more to do. But first we must feel – really feel. We must let covid-19’s fierce power and our existential connectedness transform us, even at risk of losing the selves we thought we knew. We must turn inward to hear the loud boom of death. We must let ourselves cry the wails of the broken.

Only then can the wind, earthquake and fire of this moment rouse us to hear the Voice. Only then, like Nadav and Avihu, might these tragic deaths make any sense at all. Only then, like Aaron before us, might we and our world find any true comfort.

Rabbi David Evan Markus (AJR Adjunct Faculty – Rabbinics) is senior rabbi of Temple Beth El of City Island (New York, NY) and Founding Builder of Bayit: Building Jewish, a spiritual innovation start-up for all ages and stages. Rabbi Markus also serves as Faculty in Spiritual Direction and past Board Co-Chair for ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. By day, Rabbi Markus presides as Judicial Referee in New York Supreme Court, 9th Judicial District, as part of a parallel career in government service.