You may have read recently of the tragic and bizarre death of Rabbi James Diamond, who was for many years the Hillel director at Princeton University. On Thursday of Hol HaMo’ed Pesah, Rabbi Diamond and friends were entering a car after their weekly Talmud study group in Manhattan, when another car sped out of control, crashed into the parked car in front of the one he was entering, and the collision killed him on the spot.
How does one explain tragic death? That’s one of life’s central questions; in fact, it’s one of the central questions of this week’s parashah, Shemini. We are confronted with the question as we read of the sudden deaths of Aharon’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, in Leviticus, and of Uzzah in the haftarah from II Kings. The texts tell us that God was displeased with each of these characters, and in typical Biblical fashion, justifies their deaths, but in neither case does the text give a specific reason. And in our curiosity, we go looking for probable cause.
Sometimes, though, we are struck by the lack of good answers, and we tend to provide lots of bad ones. Who can be blamed, though, for embarking on a quest for meaning? We say that tragedy is senseless; of course it is, yet we strive to make sense of it anyway. Is this striving futile? Is it morally bankrupt? Or is it cathartic?
Of Rabbi Diamond’s many contributions to the Jewish world is a book called Stringing the Pearls: How to Read the Weekly Torah Portion. We honor his memory by doing just that–exploring the parashah for wisdom and perhaps even solace when we need it most. On Shabbat morning, we’ll use Humash Etz Hayim as a tool for reviewing our most sacred text.
Rabbi David Wise