by Miriam Lichtenberg
“Anu banu artza, livnot ulehivanot bah – We have come to the Land to build and be ourselves rebuilt.” I imagine the Zionist pioneers tilling the land, as they sung out this early pioneer song, dreaming of a day when they would be able to share this in their own land, dedicated to the creation of a Jewish state. They could not even imagine a day where I would be writing from my apartment in downtown Jerusalem, where I am spending a semester abroad. And, yet, here I am, in Israel, with its 70th birthday just around the corner. The streets are filling up with decorations, there is jubilation in the air for the miracle of a 70-year birthday. As I walk around, I can only hope that our excitement is mixed with and understanding of sacrifices made on all sides for us to get to where we are today.
Looking at this week’s parsha, I see the same excitement. This week’s Torah portion, parashat Shemini, discusses the inauguration of the mishkan (tabernacle). What an exciting time for the the Israelites wandering in the desert – finally, they can offer sacrifices to God in God’s dwelling place. I can only imagine the joy that was felt in the moment must have been akin to that which many in Israel will feel on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel Independence day. They must have felt, in a way to closer to God. And then, the unspeakable happens, and Israel and one if its chief leaders Aaron, is thrown into a state of mourning.
Aaron, the pioneering chief priest of the Israelites in the desert, has lost his two sons, Nadav and Avihu who entered the Mishkan and brought an unauthorized sacrifice and died. The Rabbis struggle with this harsh punishment for a seemingly minor crime. For this, I too am confused and have no explanation to offer, only to reflect on and empathize with a great tragedy in the face of great joy. Something which I feel today, on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and as I am sure I will feel on Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Remembrance Day, especially as it leads into Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. How to merge great joy with great sorrow is a reality this week in Israel – most people here are working hard to strike that balance, an act many of us face in our own lives all too often.
The Torah portion then goes on to relate a peek into Aaron’s mourning process. Moshe tries to comfort his brother Aaron by declaring the glory of God. To his brother’s words, the parsha tells us, “Vayidom Aharon,” “Aaron was silent.” Why was he silent? Why does the Torah not tell us that Aaron was comforted?
Perhaps because Moshe’s words of comfort were not in fact comforting to Aaron. Aaron was silent. He held his tongue and did not respond to Moshe’s declaration of the glory of God at a time of immense personal tragedy. Moshe was an unsurpassed leader, but here perhaps, he seems to have lacked the opportunity to exercise some critical interpersonal skills.
As I think about Israel’s upcoming birthday, in the face of Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron, I look to this week’s parsha as a way to think about how to deal with glory and tragedy, with greatness and with destruction. It is not an easy balance at all – perhaps our greatest leader himself did not have it figured out. But I think about the words “Anu banu artza, livnot ulehivanot bah” and feel a sense of great hope for our rebuilding and celebration, whether on the steps of Jerusalem or the steps of the bayit at camp.