2018-04-11 / Religion Column

Torah provides a roadmap for coping with tremendous grief

Assistant Rabbi - Temple Emanuel

Parashat Shemini
Lev. 9:1-11:47

This is a difficult time on our Jewish calendar. We have begun to count the Omer, a time associated with the slaughter of thousands of Torah scholars, including Rabbi Akiva in ancient times. We will also observe Yom Hashoah, the solemn day of Holocaust commemoration, and Yom Hazikaron, the day on which we memorialize the fallen soldiers of the IDF. The grief is communal and for many it is also personal, as family and friends have been lost either at the hands of the Nazis or to the ongoing state of war in Israel. We are reminded of the reality that grief is an unavoidable part of the human experience; consequently we must learn how to live with loss. So it is fitting that we read the Torah portion of Shemini. In it, we find both an account of catastrophic loss and a roadmap for healing.

We read of the horrible fate that befalls Aaron’s promising young sons, Nadav and Avihu. They bring an offering of “strange” fire that they were not commanded to bring. In a horrifying moment, they are consumed by fire from the altar, for reasons not fully explained. The depths of Aaron’s grief are illustrated by his reaction of stunned silence (Lev. 10:3). Aaron, brought into leadership as Moses’ “mouthpiece” has no words to express his loss.

In grief, the mourner can become (understandably) closed off to everyone around them, even those who may provide solace and healing. So it is with Aaron. Even though he still has two sons, Elazar and Itamar, who may help ease his pain, he closes himself off to them. We see this initial rejection in the way the Torah refers to those sons. They are described (in Lev. 10:12) as Aaron’s “banim (sons) notarim (leftover),” literally his “leftover sons.” Notarim evokes notar, the term used repeatedly throughout Leviticus for sacrificial leftovers forbidden for consumption. By referring to them as Aaron’s “notarim,” Elazar and Itamar are effectively likened to spoiled, forbidden, leftover meat.

A related term provides the key to Aaron’s path toward healing. Aaron is directed to prepare a meal using the noteret (Lev. 10:12), the remaining part of a grain offering. Noteret is also a kind of leftover, but it is not only permitted, it is a staple of the priestly diet. Noteret is a word closely related to notar. Both words share the essential meaning of “something extra,” yet a world of difference exists between the two. Notar connotes a spoiled and rejected leftover, whether it is sacrificial meat or “leftover” sons. Noteret, in contrast, is a holy remnant, that part which remains to be eaten in purity by priests. The reference to the sacrificial noteret reminds Aaron of another holy remnant, his remaining sons! They are blessings for their father, tethering him to the world of the living and providing hope for the future.

We can see how Aaron moves from spurning Elazar and Itamar to embracing them as he goes from silence (Lev. 10:3) to speaking up in their defense (Lev 10:16-20). If we can learn from Aaron’s model, the Torah shows us how to deal not just with death but any major loss. While the emotional shift Aaron makes requires tremendous internal work, it is one that allows for healthy coping with grief, sadness and loss. Our work is to find ways to see the blessings that remain, such as the love and support of those around us, not as spoiled leftovers, but as the holy remnant that will sustain us through our darkest days. 

Return to top