By Rabbi David Levin
There is nothing more horrific than losing a child. The pain is overwhelming; it makes no sense. Indeed, the entire world is turned upside down. It is unnatural at the most basic of levels to bury your child.
Aaron experiences this pain in Parsha Shemini. “God’s Fire” consumes Nadav and Abihu, two of Aaron’s four sons and high priests. Aaron is speechless (ironic given his position in service with Moses) and even more instructed to continue his work with no time for him to grieve.
The unvarnished brutality of the world inflicts itself, and there is no protection from it, no matter how well we tried to live or how well we tried to teach our children. We do our best, but this unimaginable thing can touch us even in a world where we think we are doing everything as we should. Thankfully, most of us do not confront this horrible loss. And no one other than those who have walked this path can know the depths of its pain.
Our sages have struggled with God’s killing of Nadav and Abihu, particularly for offenses that appear minor. Some have argued that they were overzealous and tried to do more than the ritual required of them; others such as Rashi posit it was because the two were inebriated.
Frankly, we do not know why God killed them. Our portion prompts every God-fearing person to question why God would take a child under any circumstances. And then, we must confront the reality of continuing to live after such a tragic, inexplicable loss. How impossible a task this is. But it is not about some intangible other in some far-off place.
This horrifying situation is about us and our need to personalize these tragedies. We cannot ignore them, for we place our humanity in peril. It is not about “them” or “over there”; it is about us right now.
I think about Vladek Spiegelman, the father of Art Spiegelman, author of “Maus,” and Otto Frank, the father of Anne. I think of the people I have tried to comfort as a chaplain. I think of the mothers and fathers of Ukraine and the 20 other major conflicts that are killing children worldwide; I think of the violence of our inner cities and the slaughter of children in school shootings.
My heart goes out to the millions of people whose world is shattered beyond recognition. What can I do besides sit in grief?
Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and creator of logotherapy, taught that although we cannot control what has happened to us, even at the hands of others, we can control how we respond to even the most horrible things. But I often find myself lost.
Even as one who serves as a disaster spiritual care team responder for mass casualty events, I grapple with the enormity of the sadness. But there are three things that each of us can do.
We can offer prayers of gratitude; indeed, there but for the grace of God, go I.
We can console those who grieve.
We can work to stop the preventable losses.
What are you willing to do to prevent the things that are killing our children? As the saying goes, there are none so blind as those who will not see. Will you open your eyes and your hearts to the children?
For those of us blessed not to know such tragedy and grief, we must share our blessings with those less fortunate. Here are four groups dedicated to helping those in need:
Support refugee aid through HIAS at hias.org/.
Provide medical assistance through Doctors without Borders at doctorswithoutborders.org/
Provide food to the hungry through World Central Kitchen at wck.org/.
Support an end to gun violence through Moms Demand Action at momsdemandaction.org/.
Many other groups provide humanitarian support to those in need, and many groups are promoting political activism to stop the violence. Support the ones that resonate with you. However, the blessings that are uniquely ours also come with a special responsibility. Protecting the vulnerable promotes the welfare of everyone, including ourselves.
As Jews, we know all too well the suffering of the oppressed. And it is part of the American experience as well. Right now, you can help lessen the suffering of those victims of violence through your gifts of time, money and a generous heart. Be part of that change. JE
Rabbi David Levin is the founder and director of Jewish Relationships Initiative, a not-for-profit dedicated to helping seekers of meaning through the Jewish wisdom tradition. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.