Don’t think me morbid, but some of my most vivid memories of sitting shiva with my family are all about the food. We ate chocolate covered potato chips at my Zayde’s shiva. At my Nana’s shiva we found chocolate covered, peanut butter wrapped cherries in her freezer that she’d made, so we ate those. For my grandfather, it was fried chicken all the way, and for my father we had delicious cakes and treats from my favorite bakery, Zingerman’s. Each of these experiences is seared in my mind with the powerful senses of smell and taste. I will go so far as to say I probably overindulged, falling into the trap of gaining weight while grieving. It is not uncommon to either gain or lose significant weight after a loss. Things tend to fall to one extreme or another as we try to process our emotions and make some sense of the world when everything is so out of order.
The Torah provides interesting insight into the grieving process, and in particular in the portion we read this week, Parshat Shemini. The parshah begins with the words “On the eighth day” after the priests have been installed. The text picks up with the narrative of creating a holy leadership team of Aaron and his sons, who unfortunately make an offering without the appropriate directions or intentions and end up losing their lives. Following this tragic story are the laws for making time holy with sacrifices and laws for making our bodies holy by following the laws of kashrut.
What stands out in this text are the reactions to the death. Aaron is silent, though immediately following his silence we read about the rule to “drink no wine” in chapter 10, verse 9. On the surface you’d think that this prohibition has everything to do with the fact that Nadav and Avihu were “intoxicated” when they broke the rules and ultimately lost their lives. However, according to Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman, a modern commentator, this resulted from the fear that the bereaved relatives would drown their sorrows in intoxicants and not be fit to carry on their responsibilities.
The Torah recognizes the very human reaction to loss or tragedy in overindulging in our vices, whether that’s the substance specified – wine – or chocolate cake. The Torah reminds us to find our balance. Furthermore, Simcha Bunem, an 18th century Hasidic leader in Poland, reminds us that while wine “cheers the heart” (Psalm 104:15), the Kohanim (priests) were to avoid it. When we come before God, our joy should stem from serving God, without the use of external stimulants.
Joy and sorrow are deep-rooted human emotions, and emotional changes cause us to behave differently in certain situations. As difficult as it can be to deal with emotional highs and lows, Parshat Shemini encourages us to embrace and experience these emotions rather than try to mask them with food, beverages, or other substances. The best coping mechanism we have is actually living these moments fully and allowing ourselves to learn and grow as a result.