The article below is from Rabbi Riskin’s book Vayikra: Sacrifice, Sanctity & Silence, part of his Torah Lights series of commentaries on the weekly parsha, published by Maggid and available for purchase here.

Parshat Shemini: Brides and Grooms, Feasts and Fasts

Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin is the Founder and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone

RSR Head Shot Gershon Ellinson credit

“And it happened on the eighth day…of the consecration of the Sanctuary, which was the first day of the month of Nisan…” (Rashi, Leviticus 9:1)

The first day of the month of Nisan is a great occasion of joy within biblical history. It is the day when the Almighty declared His first commandment to Israel: “This renewal of the moon shall be to you the festival of the new moon; it is to be to you the first month of the months of the year” (Exodus 12:2).

Indeed, the Midrash records that these divine words were heard throughout Egypt, because they foretold that a most significant event was about to take place on this first of the yearly months, the Israelite nation was about to be born as it leaves Egypt amidst great wonders and miracles, a stupendous change was about to transform the political and social character of the greatest power in the world, the Egyptian slave society (hodesh, hidush, month, change, novelty).

Therefore, the whole of the month of Nisan is considered to be a holiday, thus, “We are not to fall on our faces (by reciting the penitential prayer tachanun) for the entire month of Nisan… and we are not even to fast (during this month) for a yahrzeit (death anniversary of a departed parent). (Shulkhan Arukh, Orakh Chayim 429, with Rema)

The apparent reason for this festive quality of the month is the fact that Nisan is the month of our redemption. And this is especially true for Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the first day of the month of Nisan, when God’s word was heard throughout Egypt and the optimistic command of sanctifying the monthly renewal of the moon was given to Israel. Indeed, this is probably the reason why the author of the Passover Haggadah even suggests that the Seder ought to have taken place on Rosh Chodesh Nisan, were it not for the requirement of matza and maror on the evening of the 15th of Nisan.

And yet, the same Rabbi Moshe Isserles who forbids fasting on a yahrzeit during the month of Nisan and who generally forbids a bride and groom from fasting on their wedding day if they are married on any Rosh Chodesh (first of the month) throughout the year – since a bride and groom are forgiven all of their prior sins on their wedding day, they are by custom enjoined to make the day before their wedding a mini Yom Kippur fast up until the marriage ceremony – does specifically enjoin the bride and groom to fast on Rosh Chodesh Nisan! (Shulkhan Arukh, Orakh Chayim 572, Rema).

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, the Chafetz Chaim, agrees, although other authorities consider it “a great wonder.” How can we explain the tradition allowing a bride and groom to fast on Rosh Chodesh Nisan?

The reason given by the Rema for the wedding fast is precisely because of the horrific tragedy of which we read in the opening verses of the biblical reading: The deaths of Nadav and Avihu, which occurred specifically on the first day of the month of Nisan, the eighth day of the consecration of the Sanctuary, the very day on which the Sanctuary was erected.

Why was a day of such religious sensitivity and significance transformed into such tragedy and terror? And why express the agony of what was supposed to have been a day of ecstasy into the fast of a bride and groom on that day?

According to Rashi, Nadav and Avihu were righteous individuals, even more righteous than Moses and Aaron.

Why does the sanctification of the House of God require such sacrifices – the sincerely pious sons of Aaron, the High Priest? The sacred text doesn’t explain itself, it merely ordains and decrees. The Divine Presence is a flame of fire – and fire purifies, purges, but it also consumes.

But why do we recognize the tragedy of the day – a day on which we still recite the usual Psalms of Praise (Hallel) of Rosh Chodesh – specifically by allowing the bride and groom to fast prior to their wedding ceremony if they are being married on that day?

The answer to this question is to be found in the Midrash, which suggests that the commandment to build the Sanctuary was given only after the Almighty had forgiven Israel for the sin of the golden calf, on the morrow of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. From this perspective, the Sanctuary became the nuptial home in which God and Israel were to dwell together forever, the supreme symbol that Israel had indeed been forgiven; from this moment onward, the major metaphor for the God-Israel relationship became that of bride and groom.

Hence, every bride and groom are a reflection of God the groom and Israel the bride, with the bond of matrimony reflecting a little bit of divine love and forgiveness. And just as every marriage has moments of tragedy as well as joy, of fasting as well as feasting, even God’s subsequent relationship with Israel contained the zenith of our holy Temples and the nadir of our exiles. Ultimately, however, we know that God will redeem us, so that a Jewish marriage is an expression of faith in a glorious Jewish future despite our rootedness in blood, and of Jewish belief “that there will be heard in the streets of Judea and the great places of Jerusalem the sound of joy and happiness, the sound of bride and groom” despite our exile and persecution.

The death of Nadav and Avihu on the very day of the completion and final consecration of the Sanctuary was an expression of our realization that our marriage with God will be rocky as well as rapturous, will have moments of loving communication as well as moments of inexplicable isolation and abandonment. The young bride and groom similarly reflect the heartthrobs and heartaches of married life by their fast on Rosh Chodesh, as well as their faith in each other that they will overcome every challenge and emerge from their trials strengthened and redeemed. And so Aaron is silent, “Vayidom Aharon,” (Leviticus 10:3) when faced with the tragedy of his sons’ demise. He realizes that there are divine decrees which must be accepted even when they cannot be understood.

In a Munich Synagogue several years ago, I witnessed another kind of silence. There were about one hundred people in shul – but only the cantor and I were praying. Everyone else was talking – not in the hushed tones in which neighbors generally speak during the prayer service but in loud conversations, even occasionally walking from place to place as they spoke, seemingly totally unaware of the praying and Torah reading going on at “center stage.” My host explained it very well: “These Jews are all Holocaust survivors or children of Holocaust survivors. They’re angry at God – so they can’t, or won’t speak to Him. But neither can they live without Him. So they come to shul, and they don’t speak to Him. But they do speak to each other…”

I believe that bride and groom must also learn from the congregation in Munich. There are often difficult moments in life, so difficult that you can’t even speak to God, you can only be silent before the divine decree. But at these moments you must speak to each other, give to and garner strength from each other, attempt to find comfort in the miracle of your love for each other.

Shabbat Shalom

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