Aaron the high priest and Robert Frost the poet

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By Clifford S. Fishman | Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Shemini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47.

In Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” the narrator interrupts his journey to contemplate the gentle snowfall. There is a somewhat discordant reference to “the darkest evening of the year” in line 8, but otherwise, the first 12 lines of the poem paint a quiet, pretty picture.

But in the last four lines, the mood suddenly shifts:

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”

They suggest the narrator wishes he could simply end his journey there in the woods. But why? And why did he stop? Why is this the “darkest evening?” Death is the “darkest” and “deepest” thing there is. Has the narrator suffered a loss so awful that death is “lovely” compared to the alternative?

The poem provides no answers.

A profoundly disturbing incident occurs at the beginning of Leviticus Chapter 10: “Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each … offered before the LORD alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the LORD and … they died at the instance of the LORD.” Moses offered words of consolation, but, the Torah tells us, “Aaron was silent.”
Our sages offer a variety of interpretations or explanations of Aaron’s silence — a stunned inability to react; a meek acceptance of the divine decree; anger at God, hence refusal to carry out his duties.

Some sages suggest that Aaron was envious of his sons, who loved God so much that they eagerly returned their souls to God immediately, rather than live out their natural span. Perhaps, for a time, Aaron yearned to join them.

Aaron’s silence challenges us so profoundly because each of these interpretations reflect how people often respond to a personal tragedy or a loss. A loved one dies, well before his or her time. Or a person suffers a severe injury, or a sudden illness. Or a person’s career or lifesavings disappear in an upheaval that no one could have predicted or prevented.
If God is just, how could He let this happen?

We should not feel guilty about having such reactions; we have a right to feel any or all of them. And knowing that Aaron may have felt any or all of them may be of some comfort if something terrible happens to us or to a loved one.

The “alien fire” incident is in a way the flip side of “Stopping by Woods.” In the poem, we are left to guess the back story; all we know for sure is the narrator’s response. In Leviticus 10:1-3, we know what Aaron has lost; it is Aaron’s non-response that mystifies us.

But each teaches us the same lesson. After his silence, after Aaron recovers from the initial shock, what does Aaron do? Does he surrender to anger or despair or disbelief? Doing so would be so understandable. After all, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.”

But Aaron chooses, forces himself, not to remain in those “woods,” because he knows that the Israelites — and God — need him and depend on him. He takes a deep breath — and resumes his responsibilities to his people. Despite the loss, despite the tragedy, despite the anger and despair, he knows — as Frost’s narrator knows:

“But I have promises to keep,
and miles to go before I sleep;
and miles to go, before I sleep.”

Clifford S. Fishman, a long-time member
of Tikvat Israel Congregation, retired in
2019 after 42 years as a law professor at Catholic University.

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