Lessons from Shemini for Yom HaShoah and Yom HaAtzma’ut by Rabbi Chaim Poupko


Parashat Shemini is a more appropriately titled Parashah than any other. Since the week before Pesach, we have read the first Aliyah of Parashat Shemini seven times, and with this Shabbat’s Torah reading, the total comes to eight. The Parashah whose name means ‘eighth’ is being read for the ‘eighth’ time.

The eighth reading of the Parashah was worth waiting for, since Shemini can help us transition from Yom HaShoah to Yom HaAtzma’ut (here in the diaspora, at least, where we are a Parashah behind our brothers and sisters in Israel).

In Parashat Shemini we find two very curious exchanges between Moshe and Aharon. The scene in which these two conversations take place is one that is mixed with and tragedy. These conversations take place “BaYom HaShemini,” “on the eighth day” (VaYikra 9:1). It was the eighth day of the inauguration of the newly constructed Mishkan. For the first seven days, the Kohanim practiced setting up and running the Mishkan, and on the eighth day, which was also Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the Mishkan was finally opened. Chazal explain that this day was as joyous as the day in which Hashem created the heaven and earth (Megillah 10b). Amidst this incredible joy, tragedy suddenly strikes as Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon, are abruptly killed for bringing a foreign fire into the Mishkan amidst this celebration (10:1-2).

During this scene, marked by both celebration and mourning, Moshe and Aharon have two exchanges. In the first exchange, which occurred immediately after Nadav and Avihu’s deaths, Moshe tells Aharon that Hashem referred to Nadav and Avihu’s deaths when He told him that He will be sanctified by those who were close to Him (10:3). In response to this, “VaYidom Aharon,” “and Aharon remained silent” (10:3).

In the second exchange, after Moshe instructs Aharon and his family not to observe the typical mourning rituals and to instead continue with the Mishkan service (10:6), Moshe discovers that the Kohanim, the sons of Aharon, chose to not eat one of the sin-offerings as they were instructed. Instead, they burned it on the altar. Moshe asks the Kohanim why they did not consume the Korban Chattat, and Aharon responds with a respectful counter-argument which Moshe accepts (10:19-20).

In these two exchanges we find two different responses to suffering. In the first, Aharon remains silent, for he can do nothing but accept the harsh, divine decree against his two sons. He does not ask for explanations, because he knows he will not receive an answer. He expresses “Baruch Dayan HaEmet,” that Hashem is the true judge, without having said a word.

Aharon exemplifies what Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, the Rav, refers to as “the man of fate”. The man of fate is a person who can only stand perplexed and confused before the greatest of mysteries – the mysteries of suffering and why bad things happen to good people.

In Moshe and Aharon’s second exchange, Moshe embodies what the Rav described as “the man of destiny.” When Moshe points out that the sons of Aharon neglected the proper procedure for the sin-offering on behalf of the entire community, Moshe is responding to tragedy not with the silence of the man of fate, but with action and a sense of destiny. The man of destiny is willing to confront the environment in which suffering is occurring and makes every effort to find a path through the suffering. He finds a way to cope with it so that the victims can move past the silent existence of “the man of fate”. He does not ask why the suffering happened, because he is more concerned with how to react to the suffering. Unlike Aharon, who remains silent and accepts the tragedy, Moshe takes action and draws the Kohanim’s attention to their failing to consume the Korban. By doing so, Moshe is teaching the Kohanim that despite (and because of) the suffering, they must find a way to continue living, learn from the tragedy, and use those lessons to benefit the community.

The Rav used the two concepts of fate and destiny to understand the relationship between the Holocaust, which we commemorated this past Thursday on Yom HaShoah, and the establishment of the state of Israel, which we will celebrate this coming week on Yom HaAtzma’ut.

Responding theologically to the Holocaust is monumentally difficult. Many religious people respond to the Holocaust like the man of fate; they accept this tragedy and understand that they will never comprehend why it happened. They understand that this dark moment in our history leaves us without explanation or answers. Instead, we are beset by confusion, bewilderment, and silence. However, rising from the ashes of the Holocaust came the building of the state of Israel. By responding to suffering by searching for a path through which the suffering of the Holocaust will have had a purpose is the ultimate expression of the man of destiny.

As a survivor of the Holocaust who would become a Rosh Yeshiva in Israel, Rav Yehuda Amital was a living embodiment of these two attitudes. In 1985, he addressed his students at an event celebrating the 40th anniversary of his arrival to Israel. He spoke to them candidly about why he chose to celebrate his salvation from the Holocaust together with his Aliyah to Israel. He said that he cannot explain why he was saved – whether it was because Hashem directly intervened and saved him or whether it was because when Hashem had abandoned the Jewish people to chance, he was saved merely out of chance. He explained that since he cannot answer this question, he cannot celebrate his salvation from the Holocaust alone; he can celebrate it only together with his Aliyah to Israel.

As Rav Amital said:

“These doubts plague me until this day. Clearly, the answer lies in the hands of God, and because I do not know the answer, I do not have the boldness to designate a specific day as a holiday because I was saved. Thus I combine both focal points of my life, my salvation and my Aliyah, into one personal holiday. And yet... I still feel that heavy burden.”

In other words, in a demonstration of religious humility, he left the reason for his salvation as an open question. Despite his unwillingness to answer the question, Rav Amital’s  response going forward was one of action. His response going forward was to act on behalf of those who no longer had the opportunities he now had. Despite all of his unanswered questions, Rav Amital was sure that he had a responsibility to those who did not survive and that propelled him to great accomplishment.

In other words, Rav Amital lived the life of a man of fate and a man of destiny. We can trace his footsteps, in some small measure, by marking this transition from Yom HaShoah to Yom HaAtzma’ut guided by the observation on the exchanges between Moshe and Aharon in Parashat Shemini.

Nadav Ve’Avihu: Through the Highs and Lows of Spirituality by Leiby Deutsch

Pesach in the Days of Chizkiyahu - the Dream and the Reality by Rabbi Ezra Frazer