As I write these words, we are all still reeling from the pain of the loss of Lucy Dee and her daughters Rina and Maia Dee, zt”l, an Ohr Torah Stone alumna.
In the midst of this tragedy, we read Parshat Shemini, which recounts the deaths of Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu during the consecration of the Mishkan. The suddenness of their death, and the Torah’s spare description, have left commentators struggling to pinpoint why their lives were taken.
I have always understood this narrative to mean that Nadav and Avihu sinned. They must have done something so grievous that they were punished with death.
Yet recent events have led me to identify with the other view, adopted by many of the traditional commentators: that the actions of Nadav and Avihu were not a transgression but rather an act of sanctity, of dedication to the consecration of the Tabernacle, reflecting their tremendous righteousness:
Moses said to Aaron: “I will be sanctified by those who are near me” (Lev. 10:3):
Aaron, my brother, from Sinai it was revealed to me: I (the Lord) am destined to consecrate this house (the Mishkan)—I will do so with a great man. I thought to myself that the house will be consecrated either through me or through you. We find now that your two sons are greater than both of us, the house having been consecrated through them. (Vayikra Rabba 12:2)
In response, “Vayidom Aharon”—“Aharon fell silent,” accepting the price his family needs to pay to allow for the dedication of a House of God in this world. The word “vayidom” does not connote mere silence (as would be implied by the term sh’tikah), but rather “acceptance” by Aharon of the role his children played in making space for God’s presence in this world.
Only 24 hours before we celebrate Israel’s independence, our national Memorial Day is set aside to recognize the ultimate sacrifice of over 24,000 soldiers and civilians who have fallen in battle or been murdered in acts of terror.
In the footsteps of Aharon, all have been inspired by the messages coming from Rabbi Dee and his children Keren, Tali and Yehuda over the last few days. The eulogies at the funerals for Maia and Rina and then for Lucy were filled with calls for unity and solidarity, encouraging us to seek and value the goodness in each and every person. At the shiva house, it was Rabbi Dee who provided strength to us—and not vice versa.
I witnessed a similar scene just a few weeks prior, as I joined the family of OTS Midreshet Lindenbaum dean Rabbi Ohad Teharlev on Har Herzl for the sixth yahrzeit of their son Elchai. Rav Ohad and his wife Avital spoke directly to their son and beseeched him and his fallen comrades buried around him to inspire unity and harmony amongst our shattered nation—just as they, who surely had different religious and political views, lay together peacefully in their eternal resting place.
The words of Moshe “I will be sanctified by those who are near me” are the focus of Yom Hazikaron. We look to the young and the not so young, those who lost a promising future. They have offered their lives in consecration of Medinat Yisrael, the house of God in this world.
Every community, every classroom, every synagogue contains mourning families the likes of Aharon. Irrespective of their religious observance or political outlook, they are the holiest: mothers, fathers, spouses, brothers, sisters and children who stand dom, in a silence of acceptance. They recognize the price they have paid for securing the future of our people not only in Israel, but for Jews throughout the world.
Like Aharon, their silence is filled with sadness for their loved ones who will forever be sorely missed. Yet their silence is also filled with pride for their loved ones, who have helped guarantee the spiritual and physical redemption of our people.
As we gaze upon the Israeli flag this Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut, let us keep in mind the searing words of Rabbi Soloveitchik:
“… the clothes of the Jew acquire a certain sanctity when spattered with the blood of a martyr. How much more is this so of the blue and white flag, which has been immersed in the blood of thousands of young Jews … It has a spark of sanctity that flows from devotion and self-sacrifice. We are all enjoined to honor the flag and treat it with respect. (Rabbi Soloveitchik, “Five Addresses on Israel,” p. 139).
There are many ways to honor the flag. To serve this country in the IDF or National Service, to pay respect to the fallen and to shower our care and support upon their loved ones. But it is not only through death and grieving that we play our part in this redemptive project. As Israel celebrates 75, I celebrate the privilege to simply be living in this country, where every facet of life carries with it an undertone of sanctity.
Here in Israel, the mundane gives birth to the messianic; temporal life (chayei sha’ah) and eternal values (chayei olam) are interwoven into a single tapestry. Mergers and acquisitions produce economic capital that fuel the largest batei midrash for men and women around the world. High school students, who will eventually go to some of the best universities in the country, prepare to serve in the finest IDF units.
I could never have imagined that my wife and I, children of survivors, would have children of our own who have worn and will wear the priestly vestments of IDF green, and that we live in spiritual (and physical) walking distance where one day soon, Be’Ezrat Hashem, we will be able to don the biblical priestly vestments of white and blue.
This is the picture of Israel at 75. We are grieving, but we dare not lose sight of the redemption on the horizon and what we are collectively building. In Israel, modern statecraft and the prayer for the Messianic age are one. Its attainment is only possible through unity and cooperation.
We pray, on this 75th anniversary of national mourning and celebration, that this will be the last year of bloodshed and weeping, and that our tears of sorrow should turn to those of laughter and joy.
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is the president and rosh yeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, an international Modern Orthodox network of 30 institutions and programs lighting the way in Jewish education, outreach and leadership.