That’s the first thing I thought of when I heard that a person I knew had died this week. She was the mother of high school friends, and she made the best blueberry pie. Hers was a family that stayed in on Friday nights; we were not, although we did have a Friday night Shabbat meal together. Countless times throughout high school, when my sister and I went out, we’d stop off later at their house, and sit around the kitchen table talking, laughing, and eating that wonderful blueberry pie.
When people die, you tell stories about them and it’s healing. It was personally healing less than two months ago, when my dear mother-in-law passed away. But we get no indication of that in this week’s parasha, Shemini, which tells of the sudden death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu.
They were priests and they apparently did something very wrong. “Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before Adonai alien fire, which God had not instructed them to do. And fire came forth from Adonai and consumed them; thus they died” (Lev. 10:1-2)
For generations, scholars have tried to figure out what these two Priests, Nadav and Avihu, actually did that was wrong. But what is most telling to me is what happens next:
Aaron is silent (“vayidom Aharon”) –a profound, deep silence. And then Moses continues as if nothing happened, giving instructions for different kinds of offerings of which Priests are allowed to eat the leftovers. (Some are not, they have to be burned to ashes. Just so you know.) As if his nephews hadn’t just been immolated, and his other nephews didn’t have to go into that dangerous place and retrieve what was left of their own brothers, in front of the entire community.
But something was definitely going on with Aaron during all this, because he didn’t eat. Moses notices saying, “Why did you not eat the sin offering in the sacred area?” (Lev. 10:17) Aaron finally finds his voice and says to his brother, “Did you really expect me to eat after what happened to me today? Even God wouldn’t have approved of that!” Moses had to agree.
Sometimes the Torah teaches us what not to do. Aaron’s behavior is a not a model for mourning. In fact, Jewish tradition has evolved into quite the opposite – after a death, we visit the mourners for a week, to sit with them, and share stories. That week, like those stories, are priceless. Aaron finally figured that out, and he challenged his important younger brother on this. Moses seemed stuck in the world that revolved around his relationship with God – it was all about getting those instructions out, being the conduit, the channel – the voice from the Divine, here on earth. But Aaron, and the rest of us, live in this world. Our pain and sadness are in this world. Our reactions to the pain and sadness are in this world, too. How could Moses expect anything else from his brother? What courage it took for Aaron to say to the great Moses,”Stop! No more instructions! No more reproaches. I need to mourn. I need to grab hold of what jut happened to me.” Frankly, God can wait. And God did.
There’s been a lot of death in the world this week: Israeli, Japan, North Africa, and those are just the ones that made the papers. For all those people who have died, whether far away, or held close in our childhoods, we have to stop and tell their stories. Everyone’s life should include a little bit of blueberry pie in it.