This e-mail is dedicated to the soul of Sara Chana Bat Baruch Dovid HaKohain, the mother of Rav Nachman Kahana (Shlita) who passed away on Monday. May her soul rest in the highest level of Heaven and may she be a Maylitz Yosher for her family and all of Klal Yisrael.
One of the most talked about incidents in Parshat Shmini is the death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, as a result of their bringing an “unauthorized” sacrifice to the Mishkan (Tabernacle). But even more noteworthy than the actual death of Nadav and Avihu, is Aaron’s reaction to seeing them die which is (10:3) “And Aaron was silent.” The question often asked is: how could Aaron remain silent after witnessing the death of his two sons? We can deepen the question by noting that Moshe tells Aaron and his sons immediately after this incident (10:6) “Do not uncover your heads and do not rend your clothing (signs of mourning).your brothers, all of Israel, will cry regarding this burning (of Nadav and Avihu) which Hashem burned.” According to Rashi and Baal HaTurim (R. Yaakov ben R. Asher) this verse teaches that we must always mourn the death of a Torah-scholar. But if that’s so, then Aaron should have mourned the death of his two sons who were Torah-scholars and Kohanim (priests). Why instead do the commentaries praise Aaron for controlling himself by remaining silent at the sight of his sons’ death?
There is an incident told regarding R. Yochanan Ben Zakkai, who was the head of Sanhedrin (Jewish High Court) at the time of the destruction of the second Temple. When one of his sons died, five of R. Yochanan’s top students came to see him and offer words of comfort. The first student, R. Eliezer ben Harkanus stepped forward and said “Rebbe, may I offer you words of comfort?” When R. Yochanan agreed to hear him, R. Eliezer said “Adam had a son who died and yet he allowed himself to be comforted (the proof being that he had more children, as it says–Genesis 4–‘And Adam knew his wife’). So too should you be comforted.” When R. Yochanan heard this he said “It’s not enough that I am mourning my own son, but you have to upset me more by reminding me of Adam’s loss?” The next student of R. Yochanan’s, R. Yehoshua ben Chanania stepped forward to comfort his Rebbe. He said “Rebbe, Iyov (Job) had many sons and daughters and all of them died the same day and still he allowed himself to be comforted, as it says (Job 1) ‘Hashem gives and Hashem takes, may the name of Hashem be blessed’. So too you should be comforted.” When R. Yochanan heard this he gave the same reply to R. Yehoshua that he had given to R. Eliezer. The third student, R. Yose HaKohain said “Rebbe, Aaron had two sons who died on the same day and yet he allowed himself to be comforted as it says (Leviticus 10:3) ‘And Aaron was silent.’ So too should you be comforted.” Again the same reply was given to the student. The fourth student, R. Shimon Ben N’tanel said “Rebbe, Dovid HaMelech (King David) had a son who died and he allowed himself to be comforted. So too should you be comforted.” Once again, R. Yochanan gave the same reply. Finally, R. Yochanan’s fifth student, R. Elazar ben Aruch said “Rebbe, may I share with you a parable? A King once gave a man the job of safekeeping an extremely rare diamond, reknown for its purity of color, for an unspecified period of time. The man lost many nights sleep and could hardly eat because he was so worried that the diamond would be stolen and thus he would not be able to return it intact to the King. Finally one day, the King asked for it back and when the man saw that he would be able to give it back intact, he became extraordinarily happy. Similarly Rebbe, Hashem gave you a precious diamond–i.e. the soul of your son–to safekeep for an unspecified period of time. Your job all the while you had that soul, was to keep it intact–i.e. pure–by teaching your son to serve Hashem through Torah and Mitzvot. Now, that soul has been called back by Hashem and you returned it to Him without sin. Thus you should also be extremely happy.” Upon hearing this R. Yochanan was comforted.
Our question of the week comes from the commentary known as “Lechem Shlomo” who asks: “if the other students saw how the first one was not successful in comforting R. Yochanan by giving an example of someone else who suffered, why did three others try to use the same method?” The answer given by the Sages is that each one was focusing on a different reason for why R. Yochanan’s son had died. R. Eliezer was implying that sometimes a person dies “by choice”, namely he purposely does something dangerous or eats something that is bad for him, which results in his death. As an example of this R. Eliezer used Adam’s son, Hevel, who did something dangerous (namely fighting with Cain) and thus got himself killed. R. Eliezer noted that despite the fact that Hevel caused his own death, Adam was still comforted and thus R. Yochanan should be comforted too, even if his son may have also caused his own death. But R. Yochanan did not see this as comforting. Then came R. Yehoshua who implied that there is another cause of death, which is a result of something happening beyond a person’s control (usually termed an “accident”). R. Yehoshua used Iyov as an example of this because Iyov’s children did not do anything to cause their own deaths and yet Iyov was still comforted. R. Yochanan did not find that logic conforting either. Then came R. Yose who said that a person can die as a result of his own sins just like Aaron’s sons did and yet Aaron was still comforted. Still, R. Yochanan did not take comfort. R. Shimon implied that maybe R. Yochanan’s son died as a result of the sins of his forefathers, like Dovid HaMelech’s son died as a result of Dovid’s deed with Bat Sheva, but R. Yochanan was still not comforted with this. Only when R. Elazar said what he did was R. Yochanan finally comforted. The question is: why?
Perhaps the reason is because each one of the other students tried to figure out a reason as to why R. Yochanan’s son died. R. Elazar was the only one who didn’t try to come up with a reason but merely told R. Yochanan that he should view his son’s death in a positive way–the way we are supposed to view any suffering. According to the Rabbis, Aaron’s silence testified to his viewing the death of his sons in a positive way, namely that Hashem has His reasons and that it is always for Man’s good. This is why Aaron is praised.
As to how we reconcile Aaron’s not mourning his sons’ death despite the fact that Rashi and Baal HaTurim say we should mourn the death of a righteous person, R. Yosef Shaul Natanson says there is a difference when the suffering is personal and when it happens to another. When suffering is personal one should accept it positively, like Aaron did. But when another person suffers we are supposed to mourn and be upset at their loss as if it was our own. According to the Zohar (main book of Kabbalah) on Parshat Achrei Mot, all those who are upset at the death of a righteous person will have their sins removed. This is one reason why we read Parshat Achrei Mot on Yom Kippur, so that we remember the death of Aaron’s children and mourn over it, thus causing our sins to be removed. Once our sins our removed, the suffering will end.
Perhaps we should apply this idea today. We cannot know the exact reason why so many righteous Jews are being killed. But maybe if we all mourned a bit more for them, our sins would be removed and the suffering would end.