Consoling the Bereaved

Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Shemini – פרשת שמיני
April 18, 2020 – כד ניסן תשפ
This essay is dedicated in memory of Professor William Helmreich Z”L.
Consoling the Bereaved
The inauguration of the Tabernacle was marred by the tragic and unexpected deaths of Nadab and Abihu.  Aaron’s two oldest sons were smitten by divine fire as punishment for their bringing unauthorized incense offerings (Leviticus 10:1-2).  A day that should have been the pinnacle of Aaron’s career – the first on which he would serve as High Priest -- turned into one of grief and bereavement.
Attempting to provide his brother with some solace, Moses told Aaron “This is it that the Lord spoke, saying: ‘Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified בקרבי אקדש (Leviticus 10:3).’”  Aaron was concerned that his sons had committed a grievous sin warranting their deaths by Divine action.  Moses addressed those concerns by assuring Aaron that, on the contrary, they had been close to, and beloved by, the Almighty.
Aaron’s reaction to Moses’ words of consolation was to remain quiet וידם אהרן.  He was silent. He held his peace and went about the execution of his cultic responsibilities.
The sages offer a substantially embellished version of the episode:  Moses said to Aaron that God had informed him on Mount Sinai that the sanctification of the Temple would occur through the death of a righteous person.  Moses had presumed that the martyr would either be Aaron or himself, but thereafter realized that it was Nadab and Abihu who had been chosen.  Upon hearing that his sons were on an even higher spiritual plane than either he (or Moses) was, Aaron was calmed (Leviticus Rabbah 12:2).
With regard to this interpretation, one may well wonder:  Did Moses speak wholly euphemistically about the supposed lofty spiritual status of his dead nephews, simply in order to make their father, Moses’ brother, feel better, or was there truth to Moses’ assertions about their righteousness?  The Talmud indeed finds Scriptural support for Moses’ interpretation (Zevahim 115a).  After describing the consecration ceremony for the priesthood, God said to Moses, “The tent shall be sanctified by My glory ונקדש בכבודי (Exodus 29:43).”  The Talmud proposes a play on words.  Instead of reading בכבודי, by my Glory, read במכובדי, “through my honored ones.”  Sanctification of the newly constructed House of God would occur through the martyrdom of two people honored by God – here, the sacerdotal functionaries Nadab and Abihu.
The death of priests who dare approach the Lord is also foreshadowed by God’s warning, prior to the Revelation, about their coming too close to Mt. Sinai: “Let not the priests and the people break through to come up unto the Lord, lest He burst forth against them (Exodus 19:24).”
[The commentators wonder why it was necessary that the inauguration of the Tabernacle be accompanied by an act of sanctification.  Moreover, why should this have had to be accomplished through the deaths of high-profile individuals?  Torah Temimah explains that God did not want the Israelites to think that, with the advent of the sacrificial cult (a principal purpose of which was to provide a mechanism for atonement for misdeeds), one no longer needed to be scrupulously careful to avoid transgressions.  Rather, the sacrifices atone only for inadvertent trespasses; for willful sin, even the righteous and beloved are held accountable. The Tabernacle does not serve as a sanctuary or haven from such sin. (Torah Temimah Leviticus 10 note 3).]
The notion that God takes the souls of His beloved ones while they are still young is strongly suggested by the early death of Enoch, who “walked with God (Genesis 5:24).”  It is also found in a famous rabbinic tale in which Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai (RYBZ) plays the role of Aaron as the bereaved father, while Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh reprises the role of Moses as the consoler (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 14):
After the death of RYBZ’s son, his major disciples came to comfort him.  Rabbi Eliezer reminded his teacher that Adam lost a son, Abel, and yet was ultimately consoled.  Rabbi Joshua recalled that Job lost all of his children in one day yet was consoled.  Rabbi Jose noted the tale of Nadab and Abihu, which ends with Aaron being consoled.  Rabbi Simon cited the example of King David, whose infant son died; he, too, was quickly consoled.
RYBZ responded angrily.  Not only had his disciples failed to ease his pain, their words further aggrieved him because they caused him to ponder the suffering of Biblical heroes לא די לי שאני מצטער בעצמי אלא שהזכרתני צערו של פלוני.
Finally, Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh entered the house of mourning and understood that a different strategy had to be employed.  He drew the following parable: A king gave a precious possession to one of his subjects for safekeeping.  The commoner was constantly worried whether he would be able to return the item in perfect condition.  Similarly, explained Rabbi Elazar, God gave RYBZ the gift of a son.  RYBZ taught the lad the entire Written and Oral Torah, and the boy left this world free of sin.  Upon hearing these soothing words, RYBZ was comforted.
The difficulty with this tale, however, is that the first four disciples were great scholars and of course were well-versed in the proper etiquette of the mitzvah of visiting a mourner.  Is their approach -- that of mentioning a similar unfortunate circumstance so as to remind the bereaved that others have overcome similar losses -- unacceptable in a house of mourning?
The great third-century Amora Rabbi Yohanan had ten sons, all of whom died during his lifetime.  Rabbi Yohanan carried with him a small bone fragment from his tenth son and would show it to others (Baba Bathra 116a).  Tosafot explains that he was in the habit of using the bone as a means of comforting other mourners (Berakhot 5a).  He reasoned that sharing his personal pain with people suffering from similar tragedies could prove helpful to them.
[The commentators discuss how Rabbi Yohanan was permitted to carry part of a corpse.  Rashi explains that the bone did not transmit impurity because it was less than the size of a barleycorn.  Rashbam explains that it was not a bone, but a tooth, which does not require burial.  Others explain that the bone was taken not from the deceased but from the meat of the mourner’s meal (Hai Gaon).]
The differing approaches of Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh and Rabbi Yohanan teach us that the mitzvah of comforting the mourner is a delicate art.  No single method is universally successful.  Each person is unique אדם משתנה מחבירו בדעת (Sanhedrin 38a; Maimonides Hilkhot De’ot 1:1).  Spoken words that have a salutary effect on one mourner might not work as well, or at all, with a different mourner.
This reality helps us understand a detail in the laws pertaining to the house of mourning.  Visitors are forbidden to engage the mourner in conversation until the mourner himself first speaks (Shulkhan Arukh Yoreh De’ah 376:1).  Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg notes that this rule is routinely violated.  Quite often the mourner is at a loss for words and the visitor is made uncomfortable by prolonged silence (Tzitz Eliezer 17:45).  Rabbi Waldenberg justifies the practice of visitors’ initiating conversation by citing the Levush, who claims that the purpose of the halakhah is to ensure that the visitor properly assess the emotional state of the mourner before attempting to console him (Levush 376).  That assessment will determine the visitor’s choice of words, tone of voice, and overall demeanor.
Consoling mourners is difficult – no less so for rabbis than for others.  There is no fixed formula.  The formula utilized by Moses upon the deaths of Nadab and Abihu is itself far from foolproof.
You may console in any manner that is fitting. כל אחד כפי מה שרואה לדרוש בנחמה (Tur), cognizant of the particular circumstances of the mourner. You do your best. That is all that you can do.