Day before yesterday I cried for the first time for a boy who died almost twenty years ago. His name was Brandon, and he was brilliant and funny and usually smiling. I was a twenty six year old high school science teacher and he was my student. Brandon got joy from learning about the world, you could see it on his face. He was also in a wheelchair: he was living with Muscular Dystrophy. Seemingly normal, families watch helplessly as the muscles disappear from a boy’s body. Brandon had an aid, Marie I think her name was, whose own son, Jimmy, died from MD: it is always fatal. Marie dedicated her life to caring for these boys. I ran into Marie several years later, and she told me Brandon had gone to Rutgers. And that he died during his junior year. Every year I tell Brandon’s story, and of how wonderful the boy was, to remember him and to give a human face to MD. This time the shock of loss was audible as I told students about him. That was it, with their help, I finally cried for Brandon.
This past Shabbat I chanted verses and studied with a inspired young Rabbi, Dave Vaisberg and the discussion went to an area I’d thought often about – why a person who comes in contact with a dead body is considered impure, meaning unprepared for worship and ritual in the ancient Temple. Purity means wholeness, all of one kind or texture or intent. Certainly contact with death can be times of roiling emotion, uncertainty. I know life and death need separation, you must be busy living, not dying. Of those in the business to assist with transitioning families when death strikes, a certain distance, a professional emotional wall, and therefore callousness may exist. For others, anger at God, or feeling touched too closely by death’s hand may mingle in our souls. These reactions are all ones which can take away from the focus. We are to worship with kavanah, (intent) of unity with this vast universe, and the creative power that surges through it – and contact with death makes us unfit for this spiritual action. Even unintentional contact? Well, yes, because you can’t get to pure from there.
If all of these reactions: callousness, confusion, anger, unintentional uncaring make us unfit, impure, I wondered, then perhaps after I pass through these initial stages there can be a purity. Perhaps the tears that you shed after awhile, after the anger, or callousness, afterward you can revel in joy of what that person’s essence was. Perhaps those purifying tears can get you there, and point you toward holiness.
In the morning blessings of each day, we thank God for the miraculous workings of our bodies. The prayer is Asher Yatzar, and it mentions the wonder of opening the openings of our body. Well, tear ducts are such openings. The very next prayer thanks God for creating a soul which is pure, or t’horah. Perhaps it’s the tears that make it that way.
The Torah portion for the coming week is Shemini. I will chant the verses that speak of the death of two of Aaron’s four sons, Nadav and Avihu. They must have been beautiful boys, for they were among the seventy that ascended the mountain to behold God, along with Moses and their Dad and 66 elders and leaders. They wanted to approach God again, but offered “alien” fire, which was apparently dangerous, for they were consumed. A shockingly dramatic and tragic scene with little explanation. Just as there is little explanation for our existence, or the passing of boys (and girls) before their time, silence is what we hear from Aaron and Elisheva. Too shocked and shattered with loss for tears.
We nationally mourned the shocking death of children a little over a year ago with the losses at Sandy Hook Elementary School . As many of us were, I was shaken to the core. Madness, chaos, and death tore at our spirits, whispering that the fabric of the universe could easily come undone. Certainly it was the support of friends as we all shook our heads, the caring that got us through. I was supposed to be singing with the choir kids that nigh (it was Chanukah) and a hug from Rabbi Larry Malinger kept me from walking out the door that night. Finally, a friend, Phil Aronson, and his brother wrote a song, Love will see us Through honoring those kids -and it is pure – pure love and honor and support. Tears are salt water, like an ocean supporting life. I finally honored a boy named Brandon.
Continuation: further inspirations and musings about the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. Many years ago, a very young neighbor of mine was experimenting with matches in his bedroom. His Mom left the baby at my house while she went to the grocery store. Next thing I know the fire engines are wailing outside. Their home burned down to the frame. The matches has smoldered in his room and blazed during that hour in the grocery store. We all know people that “play with fire” – the fires of addiction or other dangerous activities. The death of Aaron’s two eldest sons scream for explanation, yet their parents are silent. This also cries for explanation, since Aaron is famously Moses spokesperson! It seems as though the boys have been a sacrifice on an alter built for animals: the language of their sacrifice is exactly the same as the verse before they die: A fire of God goes out and consumes them exactly as the previous animal was taken. Their ashes will be removed exactly as was commanded the animals of the sacrifice. They have played with fire and lost. Is this a shocking tale of human sacrifice in our place of God-encounter? We have learned before that the Creator never commands us to go to the lengths of human sacrifice. – so… what is up with the sons of Aaron?
Fire: it warms, feeds, inspires, but it’s dangerous, hard to control. The Mishkan (tabernacle) where the boys die is to have an eternal fire. If each part of the tabernacle is a part of the human soul, we are to have a fire that never quits at our core, but somehow to keep it controlled, not to “play with fire”. God needs, and we need, our passion, but not over-zeal. Perhaps after the encounter with God on the mountain, ordinary life pales, and they become zealots. They initiate a fire in which is “strange”, and “not commanded”, in the words of the text. Perhaps they know what will happen – after all it has JUST HAPPENED moments ago the same way with an offering. The fires of their heart are passions out of control. There are those today that fly airplanes into buildings, and strap bombs on their chest to blow their enemies up. Zealots that wish to sacrifice themselves, and others who seek death as a though seeking a lover. How can passion be balanced: Moses encounters a flame that does NOT consume that famous bush.
And Aaron is silent – with a strange word for silence that has the Hebrew word for “blood” Dam, as its root. Perhaps Aaron is now impure, his soul a mix. Perhaps he was the one that found the bodies. Perhaps that silence was an accusation, or a depression, a real absent hole in his soul. And Elisheva’s voice, his Mom’s, is not recorded – another silence. On the death your child, what can anyone say? Silence. I hope that faith and community returned some meaning and sanity to his parents’ lives. .That they, as we, can come around to a place and time where the tears are tears that purify.