D’var Torah: Parshat Shemini – Can we mourn and celebrate at the same time?
There have been weeks of painstaking preparation in building the Tabernacle, and in Parshat Shemini, the time for completion and celebration has finally come. “On the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel.” (Lev. 9:1) They prepare the calf, the goat, the ram, the lamb, and the ox for offerings. The whole community comes forward, to witness the presence of G-d, as the Tabernacle is completed, and the High Priests are anointed. But just as we reach the image of the people falling “on their faces,” the great celebration is disrupted by a tragic story (Lev 9:24). Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, perish under mysterious circumstances.
We learn in Leviticus 10:6 that Aaron and his remaining sons are instructed that they may not “bare [their] heads and …rend [their] clothes,” as part of traditional mourning rituals, while the rest of the “kinsmen, all the house of Israel” are able to mourn. Why is it that Aaron, who lost his sons, is unable to mourn, but the rest of the House of Israel can?
The Torah offers one explanation: Aaron and his remaining sons have “the Lord’s anointing oil upon [them]” from the dedication that was taking place only hours before (Lev. 10:7). They are still bound by their responsibility as High Priests. In the face of tragedy, they are not able to observe personal ritual, as they must continue to lead communal ritual.
I think that the Torah is teaching a lesson that we see repeated throughout our lives: it is possible to experience both tragedy and celebration simultaneously. While Aaron, in his leadership role, must continue running the celebration, his community can pause and mourn tragedy. We see a similar idea in the Pesach Seder. While we recount our journey to freedom with joy, we remove drops of wine from our cup in memory of each plague that the Egyptians suffered. One of the most poignant examples of holding both tragedy and celebration together is the transition from Yom HaZikaron to Yom Ha’atzmaut in Israel. The families, soldiers and all the nation of Israel pause to mourn for their tragedy before joining in intense jubilation.
I think about this each summer as well, when Tisha B’av comes around. Usually, the timing works just so that Tisha B’av falls at what I might consider the height of the summer – the time when we have spent enough days at camp to have formed new friendships and started our journeys towards a goal, but when there are just enough days ahead to form the best memories. It is at that moment that we pause to mark tragedy; we ask everyone in camp to mute their celebrations, to not play loud music, to fast, and to go sleep early (for just one night). In coupling the mourning of Tisha B’av with the height of the summer, I have learned to find an opportunity for self-reflection that deepens the joy we experience when we return to our usual antics.
The past few weeks have provided an opportunity to actualize the idea we see in this parsha – that we can hold both the tragedy and celebration together, as leaders and as community members. In what moments are we, like Aaron, the leaders who maintain strong roles in continuing the celebration of our blessings, and in what moments are we the community that mourns? Most importantly, how we can integrate those moments, as the Torah does, to show ourselves that is okay to be both happy and sad, jubilant and mournful? The Torah depicts Aaron as a leader, but also as a mourning father. It is in this dichotomy that we find him intensely vulnerable, and ultimately, human. We are living in a world where we must celebrate our blessings against the backdrop of a pandemic. We are finding ourselves living in the emotional dichotomy that faced Aaron – and therefore, we are also finding our humanity. There have always been, and will always be, moments that call on us to hold opposing sentiments, and it is in those moments that we can, as Aaron did, grow closer to G-d.