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Pluralistic PerspectivesLearning to Live with Loss

In its March 26, 2013, obituary of Rabbi Herschel Schacter, The New York Times recounts the dramatic and poignant encounter that Schacter, the first Jewish chaplain to pass through the gates of the notorious concentration camp Buchenwald upon its liberation in 1945, had with a 7-year-old boy whom he discovered cowering behind a mound of corpses.

With tears streaming down his face, Schacter scooped up the boy up and asked him in Yiddish, “What’s your name, my child?”

“Lulek,” the child replied.

“How old are you?” the rabbi asked.

“What difference does it make?” responded Lulek, who was 7. “I’m older than you, anyway.”

“Why do you think you’re older?” Rabbi Schacter asked, smiling.

“Because you cry and laugh like a child,” Lulek replied. “I haven’t laughed in a long time, and I don’t even cry anymore. So which one of us is older?”

Lulek mourned his unimaginable losses through silent defiance. Others may have faced death with anger, fear or debilitating despair.

Is there one right way to mourn loss?

Parashat Shemini records the death of Aaron’s two sons, and the varied reactions of his family. Amid the celebration on the eighth day, as the people are consecrating the Mishkan (Tabernacle), two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, step forward and place an “alien fire” on the sacrificial altar. Immediately, “a fire came forth from before God and consumed them, and they died before God” (Leviticus 10:2). Aaron, who witnessed this tragedy, does not scream or wail over their bodies. The Torah simply states: “And Aaron was silent” (10:3).

Perhaps Aaron’s silence was an expression of shock. Or maybe he was suppressing his anger while inwardly raging.  The medieval commentator Rashbam suggests that Aaron’s silence flowed from an inner acceptance of God’s judgment. As we read on, Aaron indeed continues the routine of the daily service, doing so as if with silent resignation for the fate of his sons.

Moses, the uncle of the two deceased boys, has a different reaction. After the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, Moses summons cousins of the dead priests, Mishael and Elzaphan, to remove the bodies from the Mishkan. This is a strange choice, as the deceased had brothers who should have borne the responsibility of the burial.

Generally speaking, “kohanim” (priests) are only permitted to tend to the burial needs of an immediate family member — a parent, sibling or child — but not to a more distant relative. Therefore, we would have expected Elazar and Itamar, the younger brothers of the deceased kohanim, to perform this task, and not the cousins, Mishael and Elzaphan. (Aaron, who was the “Kohen Gadol” (High Priest), was not permitted to come into contact with any dead body, including that of an immediate family member.)

This very issue is raised in the Babylonian Talmud, tractate of Zevahim, p. 100a. There, the rabbis explore why Elazar and Itamar did not take up the task of removing the bodies of their older brothers from the Temple. In this context, Rabbi Yishamel argues that the fact that Elazar and Itamar did not tend to their brothers sets a precedent that a kohen must never come into contact with a dead body, even an immediate relative. As proof, he tells the story of another priest named Yosef Ha-Kohen, who lost his wife and refused to defile his priestly purity to tend to her needs.

I imagine Yosef, a distraught husband, moving through a range of emotional states, including quiet acceptance, anger and grief. But at the core of these emotions is denial. Yosef’s refusal to defile himself to tend to his wife — his use of his “kehunah” (priesthood) as a buffer — reveals a forlorn husband, unable to face the task of burying his beloved spouse. In his denial, he seeks to hide behind the veil of a Jewish law that does not apply to him.

This rabbinic story concludes as follows: Yosef’s fellow kohanim convene and agree that the “halakha” (law) is in accordance with the sage Rabbi Akiva, who argued that the priest must become “tamei” (impure) in this case. The kohanim then require Yosef to tend to the needs of his deceased wife, forcing him out from the veil of halakhah.

The biblical and rabbinic stories offer us examples of different reaction to loss: Aaron’s silence, Moses’ swift action and Yosef Ha-Kohen’s denial. In truth, our reactions to loss often encompass a range of emotional states. Emotions are cyclical, not linear. There are days when we are angry, days when we cannot speak and accept our fate and days when we are in denial. On some days, we feel all of these things. There is no one right way to grieve.

But we cannot hide from reality forever. We cannot occupy the role of Yosef Ha-Kohen indefinitely. For some, the veil behind which they stand might be the law, but for others it could be any number of behaviors. Eventually, one must confront loss and experience a cycle of emotions in order to begin the healing process.

The 7-year-old-boy that Rabbi Schacter rescued from Buchenwald, Lulek, eventually settled in Palestine and grew up to become Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, chief Ashkenazi rabbi of the State of Israel from 1993 to 2003, and now chief rabbi of Tel Aviv as well as chairman of Yad Vashem. From the despair of the Shoah, Lulek — Rabbi Lau — rose up, confronted his grief and chose to live on.

So, too, must we emerge from the shadows of our mourning and find a way to live.

Rabba Sara Hurwitz is a member of the Rabbinic staff at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and serves as Dean of Yeshivat Maharat, the first Orthodox school to ordain women as clergy.