Shemini – Sephardic Responses to Suffering

The Two Priests Are Destroyed (watercolor circa 1896–1902 by James Tissot)

The Two Priests Are Destroyed (watercolor circa 1896–1902 by James Tissot)

In the face of his son’s deaths Aaron was silent, ‘vayidom Aharon’ (Vayikra 10:3). We don’t really know what he felt, whether anger, intense pain, or sadness, or perhaps a combination of emotions.  It is a poignant moment when his innermost feelings are kept private from us. We are at a loss. Is there then a lesson that we can learn from Aaron’s reaction or lack thereof?

In contrast to Aaron, we know the feelings of Judah Leon Abravanel, son of Don Isaac Abravanel, upon the loss of his son. Before escaping from Spain to Italy in 1492, Judah Leon had his infant son preemptively sent across the border to Portugal. Abravanel did so before the king of Spain could convert the child and thereby try to force the Abravanel family to remain. Sadly, before arrangements were made for the child to be sent to Italy, he was forcibly converted by the king of Portugal. The child was forever lost to his family.

Judah lamented the horrific loss of his son in his poem ‘Telunah Al Ha-Zeman.’ He wrote, “Twelve years have passed since I have seen my child. I can find no rest, no comfort. Not for me shines the light of the sun; my eyes are veiled in dark night. Not for me blooms the lily in the garden; my flowers are withered. The memory of him has robbed me of sleep. I have hung my harp on the weeping willow, transformed my song into lamentation.” Abravanel’s sadness never left him and he shared that with us. Upon writing this poem, he began to write his magnum opus ‘Dialoghi d’amore’ (Dialogues of Love), considered one of the most important philosophical works of the renaissance.

Aaron and Abravanel responded to personal tragedy in very different ways. Aaron was silent while Abravanel wrote. In doing so, they demonstrated to us that there is no one ideal way to mourn, to react to loss. Some choose to express their feelings, while others prefer to suffer in silence. Every person reacts to loss in his or her own way.

Indeed, R’ Yosef Karo ruled that at a mourner’s home a comforter must wait for the mourner to initiate conversation before speaking (S.A. – Y.D. 376:1). This allows the mourner to set the tone, whether they wish to sit in silence or to reflect upon their loss communally. In this way, we empower mourners to mourn in the manner most fit for them. Perhaps then, this is why at a shiba, Sephardim exit with the words ‘min hashamayim tenuhamu’ (may you be comforted from Heaven) and Ashkenazim with the consolation ‘haMakom yenahem etekhem’ (may the Omnipresent comfort you). Both invocations pray that God comfort the mourner. We pray so, because none of us truly knows what is in another’s heart. We therefore pray that God, the ‘bohen lebabot,’ console the mourner in the ideal manner that only God can know.

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