How Do We Respond?

Prince Harry disclosed this past week that for almost two decades following the tragic death of his mother Princess Diana he suffered with depression. In […]

Prince Harry disclosed this past week that for almost two decades following the tragic death of his mother Princess Diana he suffered with depression. In his words, he “shut down all his emotions.” – thinking that avoidance would make the sadness pass.  When people would ask how he was doing, he would say, “I’m fine.”  He reasoned that even if he wasn’t fine that talking about it wouldn’t help. But in fact it would make him sadder.

Not talking about it only left the problems festering. He was angry – feeling “on the verge of punching someone” and anxious.  He had several moments when he was on the verge of breakdown. Tabloid stories emerged about his wild and at times inappropriate behavior. Unprocessed pain comes out in all kinds of ways. Finally his brother William convinced him to seek help. How sad that it took 20 years!

The impact of loss, mental illness, depression, abuse, post-traumatic stress are all those elephants in the room that too often we try to avoid.  The power of Prince Harry’s disclosure is that it breaks some of the stigma surrounding mental health and loss. Prince Harry learned what we need to know – that shutting down, and not giving voice to pain hurts us. And yet our society and culture continues to deny grief and foster misconceptions about mental health and wellness. We seem to think that if we put our head in the ground, things will go away – but they don’t.

We learn this skill by talking honestly and openly.  We shine a light on these areas that we so open avoid, and the elephant in the room is acknowledged.  Studying scenes in the Torah where trauma takes place, we learn how to deal with this reality of life. This week’s portion, Shemini begins (p. 633, 10:1) with the almost unbearable story of the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu.  The text is enigmatic and difficult to understand – they are offering “alien” fire which they were not commanded to offer – and it explodes and they die. Did they do something wrong?  Was this just a terrible accident?  The answer is not clear.

Moses’ and Aaron’s responses are similarly mysterious. In verse 4, Moses says, “Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.”  What does he mean? Is this an insensitive attempt to explain what happened?  Is he saying, as the commentary suggests, that priests are especially close to God, and if they do something wrong like offer alien fire, God is particularly strict and punishes?  I have always read Moses’ response as the rush to judgment and seeking answers that often accompanies tragedy.  Feeling helpless and overwhelmed, he mumbles a religious cliché.  We too seek to explain and justify, rather than be present with pain. I am sure that it is what Prince Harry heard for so many years.

Aaron has another response at the end of verse 3 – va’yidom Aharon – Aaron was silent.  The Torah rarely points out silence, yet it does here.  How do we understand this silence?

  • Does it teach that sometimes there can be no response? Is the lesson to stop seeking to understand grief and simply to be present with it?
  • Was his anguish too great to put into words? Is the lesson that sometimes words are inadequate?
  • Were Moses’ words so hurtful that Aaron did not want to respond, lest his anger overwhelm him? Is the lesson to be very careful what we say when someone goes through pain and grief – words hurt?

Each explanation can be our own sermon as we seek to learn about response to the pain in life.  Let’s go a little deeper into the text as we seek context to understand Moses’ words. In the shadow of Aaron’s silence, Moses calls on his cousins Mishael and Elzaphan and asks them to take care of the bodies: “Come forward and carry your kinsmen away from the front of the sanctuary to a place outside the camp.”  Maybe Moses is concerned about care for their bodies and giving them dignity.  He then teaches them about mourning laws for Kohanim – priests: “Do not bare your heads and do not rend your clothes.” This is consistent with the laws regarding priests and mourning.  And then he creates spaces for public mourning… “your kinsmen, all the house of Israel, shall cry.” (10:6) He creates room for grief.  Maybe Moses isn’t so insensitive. He understands the dignity that death demands and has the bodies cared for.  He knows that there is a balance of maintaining certain rules with public grief and reminds the priests of rules that still must be followed. Prince Harry needed to remain a royal even in his grief. And here Moses knows that people need to mourn.  Maybe Moses does understand the delicate balance that takes place amidst tragedy.

Yet does he create room for Aaron’s grief?  As we move forward in the text, Aaron finally speaks – and he is angry!  In verses 12 – 15 Moses commands Aaron to resume his priestly duties, which include partaking in part or whole in some of the sacrifices that are brought on the altar. So often we want people to move forward – on our schedule. Moses emphasizes the rules, getting back to regular life:  When he discovers that some of the sacrificial meat had been burnt and not consumed, and he gets agitated. (p. 636, vs. 17)  “Why did you not eat the purification offering in the sacred area?  It is most holy, and God has given it to you to remove the guilt of the community and to make expiation for them before the Lord.”

It is at this moment that Aaron breaks his silence, and vociferously responds to Moses: (vs. 19) “See, this day they brought their purification offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, and such things have befallen me! Had I eaten purification offering today, would the Lord have approved?  And when Moses heard this he approved.”

Aaron gets mad! The Midrash suggests his tone was fierce and hard. Aaron in essence is rejecting a religion that puts rules above individuals. He rebels against the demand he move on with life, and not acknowledge his emotions.  In essence he is saying, “Does God really want me to conform to the laws of how the sacrifices are eaten right now?”  Moses wants him to get back to his responsibilities and do it right!  Moses’ response may have come from love – but it didn’t help, and Aaron lets him know that he is not ready to move on yet. He is grieving.  His response stops Moses in his tracks.  Moses turns away from an attitude demanding that Aaron get over it and resume normal life.  He creates room for Aaron’s grief, understanding that life can’t just go on. This powerful section of text reminds us that there are no simple rules for grief and comforting others.  The power of Moses’ response is that he has courage to change direction as he learns that his response is hurtful.

We have to make room to be present with what has happened to us and to others rather than ignoring the elephant in the room or burying ourselves in details of life in order to forget our present moment.  Until we acknowledge the pain of ourselves and others, it is always there.  By ignoring it, those who are grieving isolate themselves and those who could offer comfort create distance. In Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, written with psychologist Adam Grant that just came out, Option B, Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy, she writes about the platinum rule of friendship. The golden rule is to treat others as you want to be treated. The Platinum Rule is to treat others as they want to be treated.  I think Moses is learning the platinum rule in this section of Torah.

Let’s all commit to the Platinum Rule.  The Platinum Rule understands that everyone is different and what was helpful to me during grief might not be helpful to you.  The Platinum rule teaches us to take our cues from the person in distress and to respond with understanding, or better yet, action (Sandberg and Grant, p. 51). Aaron needed time for his grief and Moses finally understood.  Prince Harry needed the same kindness and clearly people could not see it. Some people may need solitude and quiet, others may need to talk and have their pain acknowledged.  Our job is to be present, listen, ask and discern what their needs are.

And then we act.  Sheryl brings the author Bruce Feiler, who teaches that it is not enough to say, “Is there anything I can do?”  While sincere, most people going through difficult things have no idea how to answer the question.  Think of something that may help and offer – “I’m picking up some Chinese food for the family, would you like some chow mein?” Little acts – a hug, a note, anticipating when a difficult moment might be and being present are part of Platinum Rule. She tells the story of friends who were aware that she would be attending a soccer game for the first time without Dave – and they came and sat with her.  While I did not have a good title for it at the time, I have felt the power of the Platinum Rule.  I remember once when Mimi was going through chemotherapy, a friend came by and saw the sink full of dishes.  She didn’t ask – she just did the dishes.  We were so grateful.  Never before have clean dishes made us so happy!

We talked about this in my Zayen class this week and one of the students said, “I worry I’ll say the wrong thing.”  If you are letting people know you are there, that you care, creating space for them and room for them to share their present realities; if you are anticipating how you might help – that is all you need to do. If you get it wrong – and you might, apologize and keep trying. It is so much better than doing nothing!

Moses learns important lessons about response to grief in this week’s portion.  He learns that simple answers and moving on are often insufficient responses to a particular moment.  He learns that just being present and listening make all the difference in the world.  It is what Prince Harry is teaching us and what Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant are teaching us.  Let’s listen, be present and act. So much healing will come!  Shabbat Shalom.