Parashat Shemini—New Rituals of Mourning - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Parashat Shemini—New Rituals of Mourning

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Thursday, April 16, 2020

Rabbi Nancy Wiener, D.Min.
Dr. Paul and Trudy Steinberg Chair in Human Relations; Founding Director, Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling at HUC-JIR/New York

What do we do when death strikes suddenly and unexpectedly?  What do we do when we can’t do anything for those whom we’d most like to protect?  And what do we do when the rites, rituals and customs that help us retain a sense of order in the face of death are suspended, leaving us doubly disoriented—trying to figure out who we are in the world when someone central to our lives has died and unable to be surrounded by those who care for us to offer their love and support?

This week’s parsha begins with the community gathering to celebrate the dedication of the Mishkan and the High Priesthood.  After a lengthy process of ritual purification and sacrifices and following a prescribed waiting period, Aaron stands before the community as Moses anoints him, declares him High Priest and informs the community that the priesthood will be inherited by Aaron’s descendants.  The future looks bright for Aaron, his family and the entire people.  

And then suddenly, Aaron’s whole world is upended.  He is told his two sons, Nadav and Abihu, have died, died while engaging in an activity that, at first glance, seems to be within their family’s purview. With his sons dead, Aaron, despite his exalted ritual status, is first and foremost a grief-stricken parent—human, humbled, left speechless by the news.  Moses informs Aaron that because of his status, he cannot mourn with the normative customs of the Israelites.  And Aaron’s response?  The text says, “And Aaron fell silent.”  Perhaps Aaron holds his tongue. Or, perhaps he contains the weeping and wailing that accompanied the initial pain of his loss.  Either way, in an unexpected act of creativity and defiance, Aaron listens to Moses’ words and responds that he will, nevertheless, assert his status as a mourner—even if it doesn’t look like mourning to him or other community members. 

Like Aaron in the wake of his sons’ deaths, we find ourselves living out some of our worst nightmares.  Daily, the numbers of the dying and the dead mount—those dying from the pandemic and those who would have died anyway during these days, weeks and months.  And the pain of all of their family members is exacerbated by the imposed physical distancing we all live with due to Covid-19.   Unable to go to long-term care facilities, hospitals, emergency rooms and ICUs during this pandemic, families cannot be at their loved ones’ bedsides, saying their final goodbyes in person or holding their loved ones’ hands.  They cannot have the people dearest to them gather around to offer love and support as they await the departure of their loved ones’ spirits. 

So foreign and painful is this reality that we can’t allow ourselves to sit for long with this agonizing specter.  And when we add the layers of burial and shiva without the normal concentric circles of family, friends and colleagues surrounding us as we stand at graveside, and caring for us—physically, emotionally and spiritually—as we sit in our homes, it’s literally unbearable, beyond imagining. 

Yet, today, circumstances beyond our control make this the reality for an ever-increasing number of us, our friends, and the members of our communities.  We, like Aaron, might scream in terror as we experience these horrors.  And if we or others try to make sense of it, to offer explanations as Moses does, we will likely find ourselves speechless.  And, as it was for Aaron, the factors that make the familiar, comforting rituals unattainable are inspiring us to think creatively about how we can make our new forms of mourning as meaningful as possible.  In the absence of the goodbyes today’s mourners envisioned;  in the absence of being able to offer tributes and emotional and physical support by gathering in a sacred assembly of family, friends and community; in the absence of knowing that an array of loving hands will shovel to bury our loved ones—we are taking on new responsibilities to ensure that we can still shower them with love and care.  We are reaching out to accompany those who are able to attend a burial and those who under virtually any other circumstance would have.  We are making every effort to hear the eulogies and graveside rituals on our phones or computers or to read the transcripts.  We are forming literal rows with our cars or virtual ones on our screens to usher those mourners who made it to graveside back to their homes.  We are attending virtual minyanim for shiva, shloshim and yahrzeits. The world of mourners has been profoundly altered, almost to the point of being unrecognizable.  Yet, one thing can and does remain the same: we and those in mourning are bound together emotionally and spiritually, even when we must be physically apart. 

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.