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Suffering Traumatic Loss – Parshat Shemini

This is one of the most difficult topics we deal with in life. To start with, how we define traumatic loss is difficult. How we define loss is difficult and even how we define suffering is difficult. As a matter of fact, the word to suffer even has a dual meaning. In my Funk&Wagnall’s dictionary that I received for my Bar Mitzva (yes, I still have it) among the definitions of the word suffer are 1. To feel pain or distress, and  2. To bear or endure.

This week’s parsha, Parshat Shemini, retells one of the most dramatic and traumatic deaths of the Torah.  In the midst of tremendous celebration at the completion of the building of the Mishkan, two of the sons of the High Priest, Aharon, died in front of the whole nation.1 The first reaction recorded is that of the uncle of the two, Moshe. He seems to offer words of condolence and comfort to Aharon.2 Aharon’s reaction is fuzzy. “And Aaron was silent.”3 Did he agree? Was he comforted? He didn’t even say thank you. This causes the commentaries to vary in their explanations. Ramban says that the silence was a change of behavior and that until that moment he was crying. Abarbanel takes a different direction and says that Aaron was struck by the profoundness of the tragedy and was unable to speak, “his heart was overturned and became like a silent stone.”4 Rashi took a third route – not trying to understand what the silence meant but rather noting that Aaron received a reward for his silence.5

Three of the greatest commentators give very different options on how to understand Aaron’s silence.

This in itself shows some of the confusion we humans feel surrounding death in general and traumatic death in particular. What is clear from all of them was that it was not easy for Aaron. On the contrary – he suffered in the classical sense of feeling pain and distress at the sight of two children being taken from him in front of his eyes.

Perhaps the disagreement amongst the commentators reflects the difficulty we have in our experience of traumatic loss. Even regular loss brings confusion and questions of the meaning of life. And when we question meaning of life in these circumstances it is usually not from a stance of strength but rather from weakness and loneliness – much as King David called out – “Lord, why have you forsaken me.”6 (It is important to note that David although having had this profound feeling did not only cry out – he also searched for answers and discovered them.)

The questions all have answers.7 They are not always readily available. We may search for days, weeks, months, years and yes, even decades.

Aaron’s silence gives room to experience the trauma. The sudden shock. Afterwards, it gives room for thought.The search for meaning of the loss begins in earnest. This search has lead us to discover things about ourselves and our lives. Some of those discoveries we will like. Some we won’t.

But giving up on the search is not an option. Just as there is tragedy in the loss, so there is hope and meaning in its aftermath.7

The silence can be used to give our lives even greater meaning…if we but choose to search for it.


 Click here to read another logoParsha post on Shemini



  1. Vayikra 10:1-2.
  2. ibid. 3 and Rashi commentary
  3. Ramban commentary on Ibid.
  4. Abarbanel commentary on verse 4
  5. Rashi verse 3
  6. Psalms 22:2.
  7. Frankl – Man’s Search for Meaning
  8. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, On Grief and Grieving