Summary: Parshat Shemini is the 3rd in the Book of Leviticus spanning Chapters 9:1-11:47. It describes the ritual sacrifices brought by Aharon to consecrate the Mishkan on the final day of its inauguration. The ceremony climaxed with the appearance before all the people of the Glory of the Lord and with a Heavenly fire that consumed the offerings.
In their over-enthusiastic zeal, tragically, Nadav & Avihu, the older sons of Aharon, took upon themselves to bring an unscheduled incense offering and they too were consumed by the Lord’s fire. Cousins had to remove their burned bodies from the Sanctuary.
The same day a series of commands were issued warning the priests not to serve while intoxicated and their remaining brothers, Elazar and Itamar, were commanded to fall into place to complete the day’s sacrificial service. When Moses learned one of the sin offerings hadn’t been eaten but was burnt-up instead, he chastised Aharon’s sons. Quietly, Aharon came to their defense.
The parasha continues with the laws of kosher animals, fish, birds and insects and concludes with commands listing categories of day-long ritual impurity resulting from prohibited animals coming in contact with vessels, food or humans; either through a liquid intermediary, through touch or ingestion.
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Comment: This week’s parasha offers profound insight into coping with loss and bereavement. On a day which should have been the most joyous in his career as High Priest, Aharon instead suffered the tragic death of his two eldest sons.
Much has been written on Moshe’s initial words of consolation reminding Aharon that G-d said ‘through those who are dear I will be sanctified and in front of the nation I will be honoured’ (Lev 10:3) and on the two enigmatic words VaYidom Aharon (Aharon was silent) describing Aharon’s emotional response.
Those of us who‘ve lost loved ones will upon reflection reach such a point – where there are no longer any words to express our grief. The emotional cycle is triggered by a fond memory, leading to a sense of deep sadness. That’s often followed by the desire to express and share our overwhelming feelings in writing, verbally, or through photographs. What then frequently sets-in is a feeling of helplessness and abandon – knowing that nothing can bring back those we loved. The cycle is completed when we realise the need to again find the fortitude to go forward.
This is also reflected in the peculiar aftermath story in Parshat Shemini where Moshe chastised the remaining sons of Aharon for not having eaten one of the sin offerings. A sin offering was to be partially consumed by the Kohanim in order to restore to its donor the lost sense of spiritual balance caused by the sin. As G-d’s representative to the people, Kohanim consuming the offering were part of the ritual process to bring about atonement.
It seems insensitive for Moshe to have confronted and criticised Elazar and Itamar for not having fulfilled their role. Yet Aharon’s intervention on behalf of his living sons met with Moshe’s approval.
Paradoxically, Aharon as High Priest should have ensured his sons compliance with sacrificial law. But the loss he’d experienced as a father supersede their need for eating the Sin offering. And curiously, this was acceptable in Moshe’s eyes.
What can be gleaned from this obscure Biblical narrative and advances in the field of bereavement counselling is that we all experience loss in different ways. Yet when challenged to perform publicly even while feeling bereaved, an expedient approach is to seek outside help along with internal silence. In that tenuous mental space, we can hopefully realise that our loss is also felt by the Divine and that we aren’t entirely abandoned or alone in our grief.