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Responding to Tragedy: Parashat Shemini and Holocaust Remembrance Day

Dr. Tamar Kadari
| 05/04/2021

Are we allowed to wonder about God’s actions? Are we allowed to suggest that He may be acting unfairly?

This week we mark יום השואה  – Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel, beginning on Wednesday evening, April 7. These are difficult days for all of us. It is hard to grasp a loss on such a large scale. How can we cope, in terms of our faith, with such a terrible catastrophe that has befallen us? Should we simply accept everything as a decree from above?

This week we read Parashat Shemini in which the Torah tells of the deaths of the two sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu. In the midst of a great and moving celebration of the dedication of the Tabernacle, Aaron’s sons die without any prior warning. The event strikes everyone with astonishment and shock. Aaron falls silent. Moses instructs that the work of the Tabernacle should go on. He tries to comfort Aaron, but he, too, is not sure how to proceed regarding the animals for the sacrificial offering.

We react in different ways to a great loss or a life-altering catastrophe. Similarly, there are also various reactions to the deaths of the Aaron’s sons as outlined in rabbinic literature. I will expound upon three of them.

1) The first is the desire to find a cause: The deaths of Nadav and Avihu are a punishment for their misconduct. The sages list more than 12 different reasons for their deaths. Some suggest they were drunk when entering the Tabernacle, or they did not handle the sacrifices properly. Others suggest it happened because of their personal behavior – they were arrogant or because they didn’t marry.

Such a reaction is extremely difficult to understand. Why blame the beloved two priests for their own deaths? And with regard to the Holocaust, this is outrageous. It is hard to even think of any explanation which blames those who died.

2) Another response is to say that there is no justice in the world. Some sages use the verse from Kohelet: “There is a same fate for the righteous and for the wicked” (Kohelet 9:2) Similarly, we know that as a result of the Holocaust there were people who decided they did not believe in God. This kind of reaction threatens not just faith but also society. There is no law and no court. “לית דין ולית דיין”

3) The third response is acceptance. In Leviticus Rabba 20:4 we read:

“His chicks gulp blood; Where the slain are, there is He”. (Job 7: 5) Aaron saw his young sons beating in the ground and wallowing in blood and was silent. He said: “Where the slain are, there is He”– He, the Divine.

Even a painful blow indicates the existence of God. It is not simple to be left with a question, with the recognition of the limits of human understanding.

I would like to end with a poem written by Dan Pagis. Pagis was born in Romania. As a child he was imprisoned in a concentration camp in Ukraine. He escaped in 1944 and immigrated to Israel in 1946.

No no: they definitely were
human beings: uniforms, boots.
How to explain? They were created
in the image.

I was a shade.
A different creator made me.

And He in His mercy left nothing of me that would die.
And I fled to Him, rose weightless, blue,
forgiving – I would even say: apologizing –
smoke to omnipotent smoke
without image or likeness.

Shavua tov from Schechter.

Tamar Kadari is a senior lecturer for Midrash and Aggadah at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. She received her PhD in Midrashic literature from Hebrew University in Jerusalem and was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at The University of Pennsylvania. In 2009, Dr. Kadari received a grant from the Israeli Science Foundation (ISF) to head a research group preparing a critical edition of Song of Songs Rabbah. Her research interests include biblical women in the eyes of the rabbis, aesthetics and beauty in rabbinic literature and literary readings of midrash. Dr. Kadari is also a sculptor whose work has been exhibited in galleries in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

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