Leviticus is law after law after law. With the exception of two stories. Both involve the death penalty: one carried out by the Divine, one carried out by humans in accordance with divine decree. In both cases, the punishment appears disproportionate to the crime. Both stories feature dead sons. In both cases, their parents are denied the space to grieve.
In the first story, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, make an offering that they shouldn’t have and are consumed by fire from the altar. Moses commands Aaron not to mourn. Elisheva, Aaron’s wife and Nadav and Avihu’s mother, does not appear. In the second story, which we read this week, a man from the tribe of Dan, who is half-Egyptian and half-Israelite, utters the unspeakable name of YHVH in the midst of a fight with another Israelite. God, through Moses, sentences the man to death by stoning. The text gives his mother’s name: Shelomit bat Dibri. We hear nothing else about her.
Why tell a story in the middle of lists of laws? Because if the law is hard, we must remind ourselves to soften. Because if the law is rigid, we must remind ourselves to be flexible. Because if the law transcends emotion, we must remind ourselves to feel. Behind each legal case is a human story. If we live by rules alone, we forget why it was worth having rules in the first place. We need stories.
So, for my Dvar Torah this week, I offer you a story. This is the story of two mothers who lost their sons. Our text denies them the space to grieve. I want to give that to them now:
Shelomit lies with her back to the sand. Her body is caked in it. Rough grains fasten themselves to her hair, creep under her fingernails and wedge themselves in the crevices of her skin. It is a cold night. She closes her eyes. The sky is too full of stars. She turns her ear towards the ground.
“What are you doing?”
The voice startles her. She snaps to attention like a hunted animal. Opens her eyes just enough to see who has broken the silence. Nobody has spoken to her since her son disappeared beneath a pile of rocks. Shelomit says nothing, just looks at the woman standing over her. The woman has clearly made an effort not to be noticed: dark robes and a generous hood, but one cannot mistake the quality of the fabric. She smells of money.
“Go on,” says the woman, “Say something. Everyone talks about ‘that chatterbox, Shelomit bat Dibri,’ but you’re just lying there like a carcass. Did they cut out your tongue, too, when they cut out your heart? I asked, ‘What are you doing?!’”
Shelomit flinches. Narrows her eyes. “Who are you?”
The woman draws back her hood. Shelomit shoots up to her feet, ready to bolt.
“Wait!” The woman’s voice snaps. “I started this wrong. I’m used to people just doing what I say, I’m not used to – ”
“How horrible for you.” Shelomit glares. When her voice comes out, it cracks like fire. “Imagine, being listened to when you speak.”
The woman bows her head. “I’m sorry – I just – I need – ”
“Go back to your camp, Elisheva bat Aminadab. This is no place for a High Priestess.”
Elisheva looks as though Shelomit has slapped her across the face. But she doesn’t leave. She pulls a pouch from her robe and holds it out to Shelomit. “Please, I – ”
“Leave me to my grief,” barks Shelomit. “I don’t want whatever charity that is.” Shelomit turns her back on one of the most powerful Israelite women and lies back down in the sand, her ear to the ground.
“I’m not here for charity,” Elisheva whispers. “I’m here to grieve.”
Shelomit feels something in her soften. She doesn’t reply.
“Please. I want to grieve with you.” Elisheva pauses. Shelomit hears her intake of breath, she can feel Elisheva’s hope and desperation in one gasp of air. But she still doesn’t reply.
“I know how to hold other people in their grief. I don’t really – I can’t really – figure out how to do it myself. I want you to show me how. Please.” Shelomit recognises that flustering, the river of emotions that can’t find its riverbed, threatening to flood the landscape. Is it possible that the one person in this whole nation who might understand is the one least like her? “I – I brought incense. I usually burn it for people. When they need to come back to themselves.”
“Sit,” commands Shelomit. She presses the sand next to her. Elisheva sits. She almost laughs – she, a lowly woman of Dan with an Egyptian husband, ordering around the High Priest’s wife.
Both women sit under the too-bright stars. The silence is thick and heavy and full.
Shelomit speaks first. “You wanted to know what I was doing.”
“The voice of my son’s blood cries out to me from the ground. So, I’m listening.”
“You come here every night. That’s what I heard. To the place where…”
“You can say it. Where they killed him.”
“Do you hear anything?”
“Then why do you come?”
“Because I keep hoping I will. You can’t hold a child to your breast, wipe his bottom, sing him to sleep, watch him grow into a man, without loving him. No matter what he did or didn’t do. I saw them pelt him with stones. I hate every last one of them. It was like my insides were being ripped out. But I still don’t fully believe he’s dead. So I’m listening.”
“I go back to the altar sometimes,” Elisheva whispers. “I don’t know what I expect to happen. Maybe that fire will consume me, too. This new God my husband serves was supposed to bring us freedom. But all this God has done is bring us into the middle of nowhere, leaving a trail of bodies.”
“Careful – do you want to go the way of my son?”
“I want to say what needs to be said.”
“You have that privilege.”
“My privilege didn’t save me from loss.” Elisheva fingers the pouch of incense. “Will you let me light it?”
Shelomit raises her eyebrows. “I don’t think I’m in a position to let you or not let you do anything.”
The two women face each other. In between them, Elisheva flicks flintstones together and a sweet scent fills the air.
“Will you tell me about him?” Elisheva asks.
Shelomit regards her. Her suspicion is difficult to unshoulder. But there is no one else, is there? The two of them have been thrown into a pit of grief while everyone else sings the praises of the God who killed their children. “Yes. But on one condition. You tell me about them, too.”
And so under the cover of the too-bright stars, on the outside of the Israelite camp, a lowly daughter of Dan and a High Priestess tell stories of their children. Their tears form a well of salt-water and their anger rises up like a pillar of fire. Elisheva leaves just before the sky goes light. The grief is not gone. They both know it will never go. But it is, perhaps, just a little less heavy in their bones.
Yael Tischler LBC rabbinic student
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.