D’var Torah: Do not remain silent; pour out your hurt

Rabbi James Stone Goodman

We begin with sadness in this portion. And so the maqam, the musical figure in our communities of the eastern Mediterranean  associated with this portion, is maqam hijaz. A maqam is a musical figure, a partial scale, a modal form. The word maqam is a cognate of the Hebrew maqom, or place, accompanying our Book this week to mark sad occasions, on this, the death of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu.

Maqam hijaz is reserved for sad stories — the death of Sara, Abraham, Joseph, Jacob, the shame of the golden calf, the spies and their failure to understand, the Sabbath before Tisha B’Av (first portion of Deuteronomy), the saddest day of the Jewish year:  all maqam hijaz. 

I add this week: The maqam is correct, the horror the world is watching in Ukraine, outrageous and sad.

There’s plenty to be unhappy about. Consider the mother of the pitiful Nadav and Avihu

Aaron’s sons, who die because they come too close with their strange fire, brought something unfamiliar. In another generation they would be kings for it. And a detail: Their mother is not mentioned.

She is Elisheva bat Aminadav. Everyone in her family has ascended: her brother-in-law Moses, like a king; her brother Nachshon, like a prince; her husband, Aaron, to high priest; her sons — say a kaddish.

Their transgression is much discussed in our tradition. By one account, they came into the holy Sanctuary drunk. Drunk. That’s certainly a transgression I can relate to, as I deal with that every day in my work life. 

I run a program called Shalvah, which means “serenity.” Nowadays, we are a function of Central Reform Congregation. We run two meetings a week for recovering alcoholics and drug abusers and for those who aspire to be recovering. We’re busy.  We’ve been busy since 1981, when Rose Mass of blessed memory and I figured it was time to lift the awareness curtain on drug abuse, alcoholism and mental illness in our beloved community. 

In our portion, Elisheva bat Aminadav, Nadav and Avihu’s mother, is devastated, she has lost her sons. According to the midrash, she chooses silence (Leviticus Rabbah 20:2). 

Get up, I tell her. Pour out your hurt. Rend your clothes, then howl out of your silence, throw up your disgust into the dust, let everyone know how you feel, some with words some without words. Let your people know what you think of their successes, the positions they hold, their crowns, so to speak.

Elisheva bat Aminadav is howling for all the mothers, and the fathers who are mothers, who love no crown more than the crown of motherhood. I have known many of them.

Rabbi James Stone Goodman

Elisheva bat Amindadav, tell your beloveds you are not getting on with it until the muscle of sadness is gone from your hands and the music is gone from your mouth, all sound gone from your ears. 

Tell everyone you know: Only when there is no memory of loss, will your loss be quieted. You are crying for your children.

Rabbi James Stone Goodman serves Central Reform Congregation and is a past president of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.