Aaron's 2nd Yahrzeit
The following is the d'var torah I delivered at our siyum for Aaron's 2nd yahrzeit last night. May all who knew my sweet boy find solace and comfort in your memories of his life in this world, and in your assurance of his boundless reward in the next.
B’rshus harav, beloved family and friends: Debbie and I offer our deepest thanks and appreciation to all of you for participating in tonight’s memorial marking the second yahrzeit of our dear son Aaron, Aharon Elimelech Z’L. Your presence, your chizuk, and your continual friendship mean more to us than any words of ours can express. Larry and I made a siyum tonight on masechte Shekalim, the gemara which deals with the topic of the machzis hashekel, the annual half-shekel donation that, in the time of the beis hamikdash, the holy Temple, was given by every Jewish male age twenty and above. I chose this masechte for a number of different reasons. First, on a basic level, the subject matter of Shekalim is especially applicable to this particular yahrzeit. Although in our times we don’t have the beis hamikdash, and the formal half-shekel tax no longer exists, it was established, so that this obligation not pass from our collective memory, that Jewish men continue to donate to tzedaka a half-dollar or similar currency before Purim each year. There are varying customs as to whether this current observance should begin at bar mitzvah, or at the age of twenty as was actually the original Biblical practice. My family’s minhag is the latter, to start giving machzis hashekel at age twenty, and thus, this past year would have been Aaron’s first time to participate. It is one of so many mitzvos and accomplishments associated with adulthood that tragically, he was not permitted to achieve. I felt that learning masechte Shekalim in Aaron’s honor, this year in particular, would be a kind of tikkun for that lost opportunity. A second reason for my selecting masechte Shekalim is its uniqueness. Of course, every masechte has its own special identity, but Shekalim is perhaps more atypical than most. It is the only masechte in Seder Moed that has no Talmud Bavli, no Babylonian Talmud. Thus, the masechte Shekalim which we just completed and which is studied as part of the daf yomi cycle, is from the Talmud Yerushalmi, the Jerusalem Talmud. In style, language, and many other ways, Shekalim, like the rest of the Yerushalmi, is drastically different than the Bavli, and learning it presented a much bigger challenge than I think either of us first expected. But though the Bavli is much more widely studied and understood, we are also told, “ain torah k’toras eretz yisroel”, there is no Torah like that of the land of Israel. Spending a year learning in eretz yisroel is something that Aaron had very much looked forward to, planned, but was not able to attain. May our learning of this gemara Yerushalmi, this torah of eretz yisroel, be in the zechus of that unfulfilled intent. But I feel that the concept of the machzis hashekel has yet a deeper connection to tonight’s memorial. The midrash on parshas shekalim in the Torah states that Moshe Rabeinu, our teacher Moses, at first could not understand what Hashem meant by asking for this half-shekel donation, and had to be shown a fiery coin and told, “zeh yitnu”, “this is what they should give”. Numerous meforshim ask what it was about this seemingly very simple and straightforward mitzvah that was so difficult for our great teacher to comprehend. Many give the answer, one certainly applicable to our gathering, that the lesson of using just a chatzi shekel coin is that each individual Jew alone can only contribute half payment, so to speak, can only partially accomplish God’s plan. Only when we come together to support one another, just as you have all done for us tonight, can achieve we shlaimus, wholeness.Yet it still seems strange: was the basic concept of mutual interdependence and cooperation really that hard for Moshe to understand? Perhaps we can amplify and extend this explanation of machzis hashekel, based on a very profound and meaningful comment by the Chasam Sofer on the first pasuk of this week’s Torah reading. Parshas Acharei Mos begins “viyidaber hashem el moshe acharei mos shnei bnei aharon, bikarvasem el hashem vayamusu”, “Hashem spoke with Moshe after the death of Aaron’s two sons, when they came close to Hashem and died”. Chasam Sofer points out that this first pasuk of the parsha and the second pasuk both relate to the same concept, that of taking extraordinary care in approaching close to holiness, so as not to do so at the wrong time or in the wrong way. The second pasuk expresses this as an admonition to Aharon “al yavo b’chol es el hakodesh…”, “do not come at just any time into the most holy area”, the kodash kodashim, but rather only on Yom Kippur, and only in the exact manner and with the precise ritual specified.But the Chasam Sofer points out that there is one difference between the pesukim. The word “laymor” is oddly omitted from the first pasuk, though it is nearly always found after the phrase “vayidaber Hashem el Moshe”. “Laymor” is understood by chazal to mean “lech amor”, go and say; and in fact, in the second pasuk Moshe is told, “daber el aharon achicha”, speak to Aharon your brother! So why was the usual formula of “laymor” not just used at the beginning? Or alternately, why was this parsha not addressed directly to Aharon, since its very purpose is to outline the Yom Kippur avodah that he himself was to perform! Why have Moshe give his brother these complex instructions second hand? The insightful and sensitive answer the Chasam Sofer gives is that in the first pasuk, Hashem is not just telling Moshe the circumstances of the death of Aharon’s two sons Nadav and Avihu. Rather, He is actually revealing to Moshe the reason why Nadav and Avihu died, because they tried to approach too close to Hashem in an imperfect manner. And that is why there is no word “laymor” in that pasuk, because the pasuk was meant, in a sense, as a private communication between Hashem and Moshe. Moshe was not to repeat it to Aharon, because it would only cause Aharon intense and needless anguish to be given a reason why he had to lose his sons, even if that reason that came directly from God Himself! Apparently nobody, not Moshe Rabeinu – not even the Ribbono Shel Olam – is to dare venture to provide an answer to that question that burns in the heart of every bereaved parent – why??And this concept, I believe, may have been at the core of Moshe’s profound difficulty with the mitzvah of chatzi shekel, the half-shekel. For that donation’s intrinsic incompleteness demonstrates not only our need for interdependence, but also the fact that none of us ever truly finishes their task in life. Whether an individual lives a relatively longer or shorter life, in the end they pass to the next world, and hand their yet unfulfilled – their half-accomplished – mission over to those they leave behind. Moshe himself is a perfect example of this. As we all know, he brought the Jewish nation to the very brink of the holy land, but was not permitted to take them on that final stage of their journey. This basic lack of completion and closure that we all experience is an unbearably perplexing and painful fact of existence. If Moshe, who lived for 120 years, a span we now view as a the paradigm of a full life, found his own passing, the ending of his active role hard to accept, how much more so are we grieved and bewildered over the loss of a young man so early in life, with so much more we hoped he would be able to achieve?But while we have no answers to this unsolvable challenge, we do have responses. As Rav Soloveitchik wrote in "Out of the Whirlwind", one should not ask the question “why did God do this” as we can never understand God's logic. Rather we should ask what does this teach me, what should I do now? Moshe didn’t try to tell his brother why he lost his sons, but he did give him a path forward, a way to move on. He showed Aharon how to take the basic concept of striving for holiness that his sons Nadav and Avihu had demonstrated, and build upon it, perfect it, give it the proper focus. So too, we have striven to learn from and build upon our Aaron’s example. We discovered from numerous testimonials by his classmates after his passing that he had quietly coached many of his fellow students in a variety of subjects throughout high school. So have we chosen to honor Aaron’s memory by sponsoring a Chai Lifeline tzedaka program in his name, providing free tutoring to those children most in need – the seriously ill and their siblings, and those children who have lost a sibling. It is comforting to think that as Aaron helped his friends and peers, this program will continue his work, and provide the same type of assistance on a grander scale and to those whose situation is that much more dire.And since this fund is used to help children in families who have suffered tragedies like ours, it almost feels like Aaron is in there helping us too and providing light in our lives. Just as he always did in so many ways, whether with “concrete services” (to use his mom’s phrase), with his creative ideas and plans, or just with his wonderful dry sense of humor.May Aaron’s legacy and Aaron’s memory continue to be a source of comfort and strength to all of us who knew him, and may his neshama be a malitz yosher for us and for all of klal yisroel. Amen.