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Parshat Shemini

Mixed feelings

After the death of his two sons Aharon and his remaining sons, the Cohanim, are instructed not to engage in any outward displays of mourning: “Do not let your [hair on your] heads go loose, and do not rend your clothes.” The binding traditions for mourners to tear their clothes and refrain from cutting their hair are learned from this verse. This source also makes it clear that these traditions are based on spontaneous human reaction to the tragic loss of a relative; they are external displays of internal emotions. (Ramban, Vayikra 10, 6) 

Some commentaries explain that the reason the Cohanim are commanded to restrain themselves and avoid such displays is because they must maintain appearances, their public position as Cohanim effectively overrides their feelings as individuals. As the Chizkuni explains: “Because you serve the Holy One, blessed be He, it is inappropriate for you to grieve and cry.” (Chizkuni, ibid.) The Chizkuni explains that they are given an alternative, based on the end of the verse, “but your brethren will cry.” (ibid.) Since the Cohanim have to maintain a certain emotional distance from the situation their personal mourning is replaced by public mourning. The deceased are also considered communal leaders so instead of being mourned by their close relatives they are mourned by the greater community. 

We are all well aware of the many times and places we are told to “hide” or “fake” our feelings. We expect everyone from government workers to wait staff will serve our needs while smiling, patient, pleasant, and relaxed, even if they are actually feeling frustrated, depressed, or angry. On the other hand, nowadays the focus is on “the individual and his needs,” and so we often find it difficult to reconcile this individualist mindset with the harsh and inflexible demands the Torah places on people in such situations. Perhaps this is the reason the Alshich takes a completely different approach to the events described in this chapter:

“But he said, ‘Your heads…’ [The reason] for this [command] is that that day was a festive occasion for the Blessed One, for He came to rest His Presence in the Mishkan through offerings brought by Aharon and his sons, and so we find that they were like groomsmen [on the wedding day between God and the Jewish people]. And when Nadav and Avihu were burned [mourning] was mixed into the happiness. And therefore Moshe commanded that they act in the manner [that is halachically customary] where they bring the deceased into a room, and the groom and the bride to the chuppah. (T.B. Ketubot 3b)” (Alshich, ibid) 

They Alshich explains that the situation was also complicated for the Cohanim themselves. He compares the commandment for the Cohanim refrain from mourning to the halacha of how to conduct a wedding when one of the parents of the bride or groom have just died. (The gemara specifically discusses the father of the groom and the mother of the bride.) 

It is stated in a Baraita: For his bread was baked, his meat slaughtered, and his wines mixed, and the father of the groom or the mother of the bride dies. The deceased is brought into a room and the bride and groom to the chuppah. Then he fulfills the mitzvah to consummate the marriage and they separate. And they celebrate the customary seven days of feasting, and afterward the customary seven days of mourning. And all those days he sleeps among the men and she sleeps among the women. And the bride is not denied ornaments the entire thirty days. (T.B. Ketubot 3b-4a) 

This Beraita describes in detail that the preparations for the wedding have reached the point of no return, the point where everything would go to waste if the wedding did not proceed as planned: “His bread is baked, his meat slaughtered, and his wines mixed.” The Beraita also takes into account the experience of mourning that the couple must cope with at this time. It takes for granted that the wedding cannot be cancelled or delayed, and therefore tries to balance between the immense joy and heavy financial investment on one hand and the feelings of grief and halachic obligations of mourning on the other. The bride or groom is not commanded to deny their sadness, rather they are told to find a place inside where they can feel the mixed emotions- the joy of the wedding and the pain of mourning. Halacha guides them through this time. The Beraita gives each emotion a place in time where it can be expressed.

This halachic solution is based on the belief that the external expressions of celebration that postpone the mourning period can also act to guide them through their mixed emotions. After the funeral the bride and groom separate, they will not sleep together in the same room until after the conclusion of the week of sheva brachot followed by the week of mourning. Practically, the mishnah seems to be saying that joy and mourning are not mutually exclusive, it is possible to feel both in varying degrees. A similar idea can be found in the Alshich’s explanation of the commands given to Aharon and his sons. The difficult balance in this complex situation is maintained not only by the Divine command to refrain from outward displays of mourning but also by the command  to refrain from the regular service and sacrifices in the Mishkan, a command that makes it clear that something has changed and leaves room for certain aspects of mourning during this complicated time. 

We have seen two approaches to the mourner- one that cancels or delays mourning and one that balances between two extremes to find a middle ground. Each approach is reflected in the halachic discourse surrounding similar cases that create emotional conflict for people in mourning. 

When a relative passes away during a holiday or festival the official mourning period is delayed due to the festival. The general consensus is that the funeral and some aspects of mourning are performed during the festival itself, while other aspects of mourning are delayed until after the festival. The particulars as to which aspects of mourning are observed immediately and which are delayed, as well as the reason for the difference, are disputed. 

One opinion is that mourning itself is pushed off and only certain public aspects are observed during the festival. The mourner is not left alone, rather “the public takes care of him.” (T.B. Moed Katan 19b; Rambam Hilchot Aveilut 10, 8) According to Rambam’s explanation of these laws there are two spheres. There is the public sphere where other people take care of the mourner and provide him with company and meals, and there is the private sphere of the shiva period where mourning and feelings of grief are delayed until after the festival is over. It seems fair to assume that this dichotomy was created because there are things that cannot be put off, like the burial. Yet this approach is not merely technical, it also teaches us that it is possible to delay feelings of mourning and sadness, and so the individual is commanded to act accordingly and refrain from grieving during the festival. 

Once halacha raises the possibility of delayed mourning one could think it was all-encompassing- anything that can be delayed must be delayed and there may be no expressions of mourning during the festival. Yet the Ritva disagrees with such a dichotomous approach. He believes that the individual may also observe certain aspects of mourning in private during the festival. (Ritva, Moed Katan 20a) According to the Ritva a person must allow himself to feel all the mixed feelings, “He should have joy [displayed] on his face and his worries [should remain] in his heart.” (Chovot Halevavot, IX Shaar Haprishut, Chapter 4) 

Halacha expects a person to work on his character and control his emotions. Simply put, he should be able to sort through his emotions and express them in specific times and situations.

At various times throughout our lives we may find ourselves overcome by a deluge of emotion, awash in internal conflict as we feel anger mixed with exhilaration, gratitude with worry, frustration with love. Some people might choose to let themselves be tossed from one extreme to another as the waves crash over them. Others choose to find equilibrium between being beaten down and lifted up; they find a way to accept the good together with the bad from the One who gave them.







Tue, March 20 2018 4 Nisan 5778