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Parashat Shemini

April 19, 2012

Untimely Death and the “Pesikta D’Rav Kahana”

By Rabbi Paul Bender

Parashat Shemini and its normally coupled Haftarah (II Samuel 6:1-7:17) both contain stories of the unnatural and instantaneous death by God’s hand, of apparently well meaning and respected characters, two sons of Aaron’s and Uzzah. To explain these troubling stories, and justify the deaths of Aaron’s sons, Hazal (our Sages) felt the need to provide a list of their errors and sins. But why would God cause or permit the death of people who are attempting to do good in the world? In my chaplaincy training at Sloan Kettering, a distraught husband, whose wife had ovarian cancer, with only weeks to live, came up to me and said Rabbi, how can Hashem take her so soon after our marriage? He must honor our Ketubah; how can He allow this? The grief felt by family is often indescribable. Even in the face of clear medical answers we often cannot accept the why’s of our personal losses. When we are suffering loss, explanations and justifications, such as provided for the case of Aaron’s sons, are of no comfort to us. On the other hand, the rabbinic commentary Pesikta D’Rav Kahana, chapter 26, attempts to provide both insight and respect for some of the unknowable whys.

Pesikta 26:1 opens with the quote from Ecclesiastes/Kohelet 9:2 “All things come alike to all; there is one event to the righteous, and to the wicked; to the good and to the pure, and to the impure.” Then, the Pesikta puts faces and names to the words, in order to flesh out these ideas and give them more reality. The righteous is Noah and the wicked is the evil Pharaoh Necho (who killed the righteous King Josiah – II Kings 23). The Pesikta continues by pairing the good, Moses, the pure, Aaron, and the impure, the 10 spies. Again in spite of the major moral differences between both Moses and Aaron versus the spies who caused Israel to sin by loss of faith in God, all shared the same unfortunate fate of dying in the wilderness and never entering the land of Israel. Finally the Pesikta considers the coupling of the sons of the righteous Aaron, versus the followers of the wicked Korah, commenting that while the sons of Aaron offered incense, united in purpose, the followers of Korah made their offering in divisiveness with the majority of Israel, and yet both groups were burned to death, both the righteous sons of Aaron and the wicked followers of Korah. We do not know why Aaron’s sons died, only that their death does not tell us that they were wicked, for “all things come alike to all.” This message, derived from the wisdom literature of Kohelet/Ecclesiastes, is similar to that stated so eloquently in When Bad Things Happen to Good People, by Rabbi Harold Kushner.

Where is God in the face of our tragedy and loss? In this chapter of the Pesikta, we read the parable of the father in Kabul, whose son is being married and guests are rejoicing over the simhah. Fetching after-dinner wine for his guests, the son is bitten by a snake and the father, discovering his dead son, suffers alone and waits while the guests finish their meal. Only then does he inform them that their mitzvah has changed. They will be accompanying his son to his grave, rather than to the huppah, and be blessing him as mourners rather than as a hatan, a groom. As parents we know that it is impossible to hold in one’s grief in the face of your child’s death and wait silently for your guests to finish their meal, and so, this may not be meant to be taken literally. My view of this parable is that only the compassionate One could suffer silently during the guests rejoicing and wait till they were done to inform them that there is a different mitavah that needs to be performed. Just as God our Father rejoices with those who come to accompany the groom to the huppah, so does God our Rock grieve and suffer for his untimely loss and for the suffering of his mourners. God silently accompanies them in bringing him to his grave and “stands” there with us, as He blesses His dead children along with their mourners. For the bereaved of the groom, just as for Aaron and Elisheva suffering the loss of their sons in the desert, God suffers greatly for their loss and suffering.

Thus the Pesikta teaches us that we cannot know what life will bring, for our good deeds are not necessarily rewarded by a kind fate; therefore, they must be their own reward. We have to accept life’s joys and its sorrows, and where we find opportunity, attempt to bring blessing and mitzvot to our communities and to our world.


Rabbi Paul Bender, AJR ’06, has served Congregation Ner Tamid in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, since ’99, and leads a monthly Jewish group at Cadbury in Cherry Hill.