Over the past few weeks since I returned from New York, I have attended a surprising number of shivas, for friends from the shul who have lost loved ones. My aunt also passed away last week after a painful fight with cancer - another sobering experience with death and loss.
It's not always easy to pay a shiva call. Each one is different, a new wound for a different family. In most of these cases, at least three of them, the deceased was in their nineties. In these recent days I have internalized that this length and quality of life, while comforting to those who knew and loved the person, does not reduce the tragedy of the loss. Just this morning, I davened shacharit at the shiva of a very sweet man, who always greeted each and every person בסבר פנים יפות, with a cheerful smile, and never missed shul on Shabbat morning (and always asked how I was). He gave so much in his 93 years, but it was so saddening to see the grief of his wife of sixty years - she was certainly blessed with so much, but it also meant that her loss was so great.
The thoughts that have followed me after these experiences have led me to write this d'var torah. It is my hope that these words, based on this week's portion of Behaalotcha. The other day, I was reading the weekly d'var torah of Kibbutz Hadati, Israel's religious kibbutz movement. It made light of the strange placement of the opening paragraph of the Parasha. Out of the blue, after the listing of elaborate gifts given by each of the tribal leaders for the Mishkan (portable sanctuary) at the end of Prashat Naso, God commands Moshe to turn to Aaron regarding the lighting of the Menorah each day.
To the rabbis, this juxtaposition seems out of place. First of all, detailed instructions were already given regarding the lighting of the Menorah, both in Exodus 27 (Prashat Tetzave) and Leviticus 24 (Parashat Emor). Secondly, what is the connection between this instruction and the gifts given for the dedication of the Mishkan? Rashi quotes a story in Midrash Tanchuma, in which Aaron is worried after seeing all of gold and silver vessels, animal and grain sacrifices brought each day for twelve days by each tribe, with the exception of the levites. God then answers Aaron with the portion contained in the beginning of B'ha'alot'cha, saying, 'but you, Aaron, and your children will light the Menorah each and every day!'
Ramban adds to Rashi's illumination (no pun intended) by quoting an additional portion of the Midrash, as God explains why the honor of lighting the Menorah is greater than the sacrifices brought by the tribal leaders. In the words of the midrash, the sacrifices could only be offered once, but the lights would be kindled by Aaron and his descendants for all future times. This presented a difficulty for Ramban - even in the time when Midrash Tanhuma was compiled, the Second Temple had been destroyed and the Menorah was no longer kindled by the kohanim. in Ramban's own spin, he replies that although the Menorah of the Temple may no longer be in use, the Hannukkah lights kindled by Jews each year commemorate and continue the light that was promised to Aaron to be eternal.
Ramban's interpretation can be used as a beautiful and meaningful metaphor for the losses we experience. Like in Tanhuma, when Aaron was promised the eternity of the menorah in the Temple, as we live life and appreciate those we care about, we rightfully don't think about the finite nature of the time we are given to them. With the loss of the Temple, and the loss of a loved one, an irreparable loss is created - the world seems to have changed, as it fells as though a part of our life is missing. But like the transformation of the Temple lights into the Hannukah lamps, the life of a loved one has only been transformed from being imminent, into the memories that will remain with us forever. Though one light may burn out, the special quality is that as long as a flame burns, it can always light another one in an unbroken chain. Just as the Hannukah lights are not the same as those lit daily by the kohanim, there is a more than tangible loss at the death of someone dear to us. But by remembering that person's deeds, and living the values that they lived can create an eternal flame, a נר חנוכה, that will continue to be lit as long as their memory is kept alive.
May the lights of those who we have lost continue to burn brightly for us eternally.