This week we have commemorated the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Survivors came out from hiding, from the forests where they had been fighting in the resistance and from the camps of horror from which they had been liberated. While finally free, they were not fully safe – thousands were murdered upon return to their homes. Liberation led them to discover the losses they had suffered, often the only ones left alive from hundreds of members of their families. To this day, we struggle how to process this tragedy, this affront to humanity.
With this background, we read Parasha Sh’mini, telling of events just months after the Exodus from Egypt. After liberation from slavery, our people have also stood at Sinai, experiencing the presence of God and the learning of Torah, and have erected the Tabernacle exactly according to the instructions given to Moses. The book of Exodus ends on a glorious and harmonious note echoing the beauty and order of the story of creation with which the book of Genesis opens. Leviticus, the third book of the Torah opens with a discussion of the service of the priests in the Tabernacle. Parashat Sh’mini opens with the ordination of the priests and the dramatic dedication ceremony of the Tabernacle. This is the pinnacle of our people’s experience since the time our ancestors have been promised to be a great nation in the holy land. It is the moment where “the glory of God” will appear to them.
Just at the height of the ceremony, being conducted by Aaron’s four sons, two of them, Nadav and Abihu, die suddenly. The community is in shock. Some try to blame, some try to explain. In fact, for thousands of years there has been much rabbinic commentary analysing the event. Some blame Nadav and Avihu for doing something wrong, from being transgressors who have been punished with death. And others speak of them as being so holy that at this exquisite moment they leave their bodies behind, their souls ascending directly to God. Aaron remains silent.
Silence is sometimes the best and most authentic response. After the Shoah, as with the death of Nadav and Abihu, there were also many who jumped in to offer their explanations of the event. There were rabbis who said punishment occurred because of the sins of the people; there were others who said “God was dead”. Perhaps more than an explanation of “why” it is important to remember the book by Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. When tragedies occur, it is better not to explain with words, but to respond with deeds.
At this time, when recall the horror of the Shoah and bear witness to this day of the horrific deeds continually perpetrated by humanity, we should recall our obligations: to comfort those who are bereaved and to protect with justice those who are still persecuted. There is a time to speak with deeds, not words.