Vort from the Rav: Shemini

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Lev. 10:6:

רָאשֵׁיכֶם אַל תִּפְרָעוּ וּבִגְדֵיכֶם לֹא תִפְרֹמוּ
Do not leave your heads unshorn, and do not rend your garments

Moses enjoined Aaron and his two surviving sons from mourning for Nadav and Avihu. The inalienable right to which every parent is entitled of mourning the death of a child was denied to Aaron and his sons. Why? Because the priests constituted a community of the anointed who were consecrated exclusively to the service of the Lord.

The commitment or consecration of a priest to God is ultimate, all-demanding, and all-inclusive. God lays unrestricted claim not to a part but to the whole of the human personality. Existence in toto, in its external and inward manifestations, is consecrated to God. Aaron belonged to no one, not even to himself: only to God. He was not even free to give himself over to the grief precipitated by the loss of his two sons; he had no private world of his own. Even the heart of Aaron was divine property.

What does all this mean in psychological terms? God wanted Aaron to disown the strongest emotion in man — the love for a child. Is it possible? As far as modern man is concerned I would not dare answer. With respect to Biblical man, we read that Aaron acted in accord with the divine instruction: Aaron withdrew from himself; he withdrew from being a father. This movement of recoil is tantamount to self-denial.

Not only Aaron, but the entire covenantal community, was summoned by God into His service. Once man enters the service of God, be it as high-priest or as an ordinary humble person, his commitment is not partial; it is total. He is subject to the divine call for total inner withdrawal. Here the Halacha intervenes frequently in the most intimate and personal phases of our lives, and makes demands upon us which often impress the uninitiated as overly rigid and formal.

Let us take an example. We all know the law that a festival suspends the mourning for one of the seven intimate relatives. If one began to observe the shiva period a short time before the holiday was ushered in, the commencement of the latter cancels the shiva.

Mourning in Halacha consists of far more than the performance of external ritual or ceremony. It is an inner experience of black despair, of complete existential failure, of the absurdity of being. It is a grisly experience which overwhelms man, shatters his faith and exposes his I-awareness as a delusion. Similarly, the precept of rejoicing on a holiday includes not only ceremonial actions, but a genuine experience of joy as well. When the Torah decreed, and you shalt rejoice in your feast, it referred not to merrymaking and entertaining, to artificial gaiety or some sort of shallow hilarity, but to an all-penetrating depth-experience of spiritual joy, serenity and peace of mind deriving from faith and the awareness of God’s presence.

Now let us visualize the following concrete situation. The mourner, who has buried a beloved wife or mother, returns home from the graveyard where he has left part of himself, where he has witnessed the mockery of human existence. He is in a mood to question the validity of our entire axiological universe. The house is empty, dreary, every piece of furniture reminds the mourner of the beloved person he has buried. Every corner is full of memories.

Yet the Halacha addresses itself to the lonely mourner, whispering to him: “Rise from your mourning; cast the ashes from your head; change your clothes; light the festive candles; recite over a cup of wine the Kiddush extolling the Lord for giving us festivals of gladness and sacred seasons of joy; pronounce the blessing of Blessed art Thou . . . who has kept us in life and has preserved us and has enabled us to reach this season; join the jubilating community and celebrate the holiday as if nothing had transpired, as if the beloved person over whose death you grieve were with you.” The Halacha, which at times can be very tender, understanding and accommodating, may on other occasions act like a disciplinarian demanding obedience. The Halacha suggests to man, broken in body and spirit, carrying the burden of an absurd existence, that he change his mood, that he cast off his grief and choose joy.

Let us repeat the question: Is such a metamorphosis of the state of mind of an individual possible? Can one make the leap from utter bleak desolation and hopelessness into joyous trust? Can one replace the experience of monstrosity with the feeling of highest meaningfulness? I have no right to judge. However, I know of people who attempted to perform this greatest of all miracles. (Catharsis, pp. 47-49)

About Arnold Lustiger

Dr. Arnold Lustiger is a research scientist and has edited multiple volumes of the Rav's Torah, including the recently published Chumash Mesoras HaRav.

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