Is God a Jerk?

Of all the parashot in all the Torah scrolls in all the world, that one – Sh’mini – had to walk into my life this year – not once, but twice. Because our Reform observance does not include the extra days added by the Sages for communities outside the land of Israel, we spent an extra week on this portion. Much of the content is focused on kashrut. But the parashah includes as well one of the few narrative events of the entire book of Vayikra (Leviticus) – the tale of the death of the two older sons of Aaron. You who’ve followed this blog and anyone who knows us or has read of us will readily understand that this text brings up resonances of the continuing process of grieving for our son, Mitch.

Two weeks, I was sitting in a gathering of colleagues, all of whom knew me and knew of our loss, and one began to give a d’var torah on that particular passage in the parashah. Because the event was focused on institutional transition, it is not surprising that the d’var focused on the image of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu as a metaphor for such transition, and the loss and processing that goes with it.

When my colleague started to speak, focusing on that passage and with full awareness of what we have endured, I sat – momentarily stunned – and waited for the anger to arise. How dare he focus on that story and not, at least in reference, acknowledge its personal relevance for me? I waited; and while the thought arose, the anger didn’t. My soul was quiet, allowing me to appreciate the wisdom of my colleague’s teaching. Our grief was not the defining, or even a defining, narrative of that moment. And it was okay.

This week, the specter of the death of Nadav and Avihu rises again in parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, which commences with God instructing Moses to tell Aaron that he is not to enter the Holy of Holies – God’s inner sanctum in the Tabernacle, if you will – except when summoned. This instruction follows the opening verse, which reads, “God spoke with Moses after the deaths of Aaron’s two sons, when they approached the proximity of God and died.” Does the juxtaposition affirm the sense that the deaths of Nadav and Avihu were a result of sin? (Though, by the way, Aaron clearly does accept the thought that his sons deserved to die as a result of sin. When the entire community of Israel offers up a chatat – a sin-offering – immediately after the tragedy, Aaron refuses to take part, and Moses approves.) Certainly, the text affirms a sense that it isn’t necessarily safe to get too close to God; too close to the central Mystery and Power of the Universe. It isn’t safe; you can get burned.

Today a colleague posted a very angry response to this text in a Facebook group to which I belong, suggesting that it demonstrates what a jerk (alright, he used stronger language) the God of the Torah is in this instance because he refuses Aaron the right to mourn his sons, and accuses him and them of sin. I read the text differently. First, in the original story, it is not God who prohibits Aaron’s outward expression of his grief. It is Moses, who stills his brother with the statement that this is how God demonstrates God’s holiness in the sight of the people. Again, not a comfortable teaching, but true. It is in life and death that the ultimate Power and Terror of the Universe are experienced. Aaron’s response to this truth is silence. There are no words which can convey his truth – the pain, the anger, the guilt, the numbness. I remember that silence. I remember the desire to retreat into it. I remember the anger that followed, then was swallowed, and which re-emerges from time to time. And I, who use so many words, remember the emptiness of words.

But I’m still here. In some ways (none of them as good as his physical presence,) so is Mitch. Most of the time, I’m okay. And I accept, in silence, that this is what is; that Mitch’s death is part of the reality of this fragile transient experience we call life. And that the too-brief time we had with him tangibly at our sides was a gift. So, I can’t join my colleague in his rage. Rather, I bow my head and am silent – today, 15 months after the death of my son.

For those who practice the mussar (Jewish ethical mindfulness) practice of counting the Omer (the period between Pesach and Shavuot) with a focus each day on the s’firot (mystical emanations of the Godhead in the universe,) this week the focus is on God’s quality of netzach, interpreted by at least one teacher of the practice as “endurance.” I used the verbal form of that word above, in the sense in which often we use it – referring to the loss our family has endured; that through which we have suffered. Of course, another closely-connected meaning, though, is to have survived. The capacity of a family and a soul to endure – in both senses – is testimony in my eyes to a third sense of the word – “to triumph,” not in an adversarial or competitive sense. Rather, I mean the word in a spiritual sense of rising above, as it were, to a place where one finds meaning and some peace of mind simply in being able to say, ‘this is what is, and I am here.” And in that rising up, we taste one more, ultimate meaning of netzach – we taste eternity.

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Rabbi Rex D. Perlmeter

About Rabbi Rex D. Perlmeter

Rabbi Rex Perlmeter was ordained at HUC-JIR in 1985 and went on to serve as spiritual leader of Temple Israel of Greater Miami and the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. After serving on staff at the Union for Reform Judaism for five years, he has gone on to found the Jewish Wellness Center of North Jersey, a practice dedicated to supporting all engaged in "seeking Oneness in body, heart, mind and soul."

2 Responses to “Is God a Jerk?”

  1. avatar

    Rex, beautifully written. In response to “Is God a Jerk?” Most of the time in the Torah God is an angry s-o-b, the worst kind of parent, God teaches through tough love. Rex, you are on survival mode- in the desert. Although there are Israelites surrounding you and Rachel- you cannot even begin to equate your soul wrenching loss of Mitch with Nadav and Abihu. Aaron’s sons were practicing a kind of black magic with the altar on which God alone was to be worshipped with Aaron representing the community. The only modern example that I can imagine is the Rabbis’ kids trying to hurt their mother by breaking into the shul and desecrating it with feces- tearing the Torah and then using the Torah to set the entire building on fire. The children survive but the father is speechless and ashamed and the congregations calls for his resignation. The pain for you and the pain for Aaron is not the same- the Torah is full of stories- do we know if they are true? Does it matter? Aaron dmma from shame, from embarasement. You cry aloud, and everyday think of what Mitch would be doing. So is God a Jerk? In the Torah- perhaps, now- no but life can be a random bitch.

  2. avatar

    Rex, I’ve read this entry more than once and marvel at your ability to convey meaning in what some might consider a meaningless situation. Acharey Mot/Kedoshim will come again this year and I’m sure you will have an even different reaction by then. This is, of course, what life does: it gives us perspective.

    Comfort comes from somewhere–we don’t always know where. But I have thought and thought about your situation and how you overcame it despite your worries to help celebrate in our simchah in Troy. It had to be very difficult–of course, we had no knowledge of why you had to be brief but of course we know now. I wish we had known then what you were dealing with but nobody wants to talk about it, perhaps hoping it will get better or just go away or just not having the vocabulary to deal with it–or not casting a pall on somebody else’s simcha. But it meant we had no way to support you at that time. You have a lot of company there.

    Last week I heard a Lutheran Minister (in an interfaith clergy group to which I belong as one of few “public” Jews in a small community) speak of what was listed in the newspaper as a “sudden death at home” in his congregation–not his family, which makes a difference, of course. His first reaction was that this needs to come out of the shadows and be dealt with in a straightforward manner, rather than families retreating to their private sorrows and worries during someone’s struggles with life, depression and so often unpreventable suicide.

    It happened to the son of a young cousin of mine, who lost a 21 year old son to suicide, so it’s touched me, too. I could be there for my cousin, but not until afterward. He wouldn’t let me in until afterward. I felt terrible about that. Fortunately he had a couple of excellent rabbis to call on.

    So, the social worker in me asks, how can the silence be broken? How can families be helped to share their struggles with those closest to them or even a wider community, not just doctors and therapists, so they know they have support. Do you have a clue at this point? Ask Deb for my personal email if you wish to continue the discussion. I’m interested in pursuing it because it’s not going to go away.

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