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The Sound of Silence – Parshat Shemini

It is the worst thing that can happen.

When a parent loses a child, it registers with us as the ultimate tragedy. Because it contravenes the very nature of things. We all die sooner or later, of course – but isn’t supposed to happen this way. The older generation is to pass first, and leave the young to become old in their time. There is a cycle, an order to the world. And when sons and daughters die before their parents, that order is broken.

Aaron is the second major figure in the bible to lose not one, but two children. Adam and Eve lost Abel. Jacob thought he lost Joseph. Even Pharaoh only lost his firstborn. Only Judah also lost two sons.

But Aaron’s loss feels even more harrowing, because he loses them both in one fiery instant:

Now Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they brought before the Lord a strange fire, which God had not commanded. And a fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. (Leviticus 10:1-2)

וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵיאַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ, קְטֹרֶת; וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי ה, אֵשׁ זָרָהאֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה, אֹתָם.  וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי ה, וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם; וַיָּמֻתוּ, לִפְנֵי ה.

Why this happened is not entirely clear. They were in the holy tabernacle, bringing an offering to God – which seems like a good thing. They came from the priestly family, so they presumably belonged there.

So what exactly did they do wrong? Why was their offering regarded as a “strange” fire? Some say they messed up the procedure. Some say they were drunk. Some say it is simply that they did it without God’s explicit command.

Whatever the problem was, it was enough to provoke God to incinerate them instantly. They are gone so quickly, we are left unsettled, confused. Did such a punishment really fit the crime, whatever it was? And regardless, didn’t Aaron, the High Priest, deserve some special consideration?

Moses – perhaps a bit too soon – tries to explain it to Aaron, maybe even to justify it:

This is what God meant when he said, “Through those near me I show myself Holy, and gain glory before all the people.” (v. 3)

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶלאַהֲרֹן, הוּא אֲשֶׁרדִּבֶּר ה לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ, וְעַלפְּנֵי כָלהָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד

But what is Aaron’s reaction to all of this? Does he cry? No. Is he comforted? Or angry? We have no idea, because we read only this:

And Aaron was silent. (v. 3)

וַיִּדֹּם, אַהֲרֹן.

That’s all we get from Aaron. No emotional display. No response of any kind. Just silence. And then we move on from the scene.

So we are left to wonder: what was happening for Aaron in that moment? What was the nature of that silence? And what happens to a servant of God when that God takes his children away?

There are a wide range of opinions among the commentators. Some say Aaron remained every bit that servant of God, that his faith never wavered for a moment.  His silence, in this reading, was a sign of total acceptance. Rabbi Ovadia Seforno (1475-1550) takes that position – and then pushes it even further:

And Aaron was silent – because he took comfort in the sanctification of God that they had achieved through their death.

וידום אהרן שהתנחם בקידוש השנקדש במותם

Aaron, Seforno says, wasn’t just dutifully accepting of their death. He actually saw their sacrifice itself as a kind of holy offering. Maybe Aaron understood Moses to mean exactly that: God has been glorified through this sacred immolation. Maybe he was even proud.

But this kind of interpretation is just too much for other commentators to accept.  Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508), for one, reads Aaron’s silence not as acceptance, but catatonic despair:

The explanation is that it was as if his heart turned to lifeless stone, and so he did not raise his voice in tears and lament like a parent mourning his children. Nor did he accept Moses’ consolation, for his breath left him and he was speechless.

כאבן דומם ולא נשא קולו בבכי ובמספד כאבל אב על בנים. גם לא קבל תנחומים ממשה כי לא נותרה בו נשמה והדבור אין בו ולכן אמר וידום אהרן שהוא מלשון דומם ושותק.

He could not be comforted, says Abarbanel. He could not feel anything at all. He was just in total shock.

So which was it? A silence of faith or a silence of doubt? A silence of of serenity or a silence of anguish?

Desperate to penetrate the mystery of Aaron’s silence, I turn to a commentator with a more midrashic style, searching for echoes I cannot hear on my own. And I am not let down.

Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, the Baal HaTurim (1269-1343), famous for his savant-like mastery of the Bible, is always able to tell us exactly where else a phrase appears in the whole of the Hebrew canon. Look what he comes up with here:

“was silent,” in this form, is found twice in the tradition. Here: “And Aaron was silent.” (וידם אהרן) And then:“And the sun was silently [still].” (וידם השמש)

וידום בוידום אהרן וידום השמש

Now this brilliant connection takes us to the Book of Joshua, to the famous battle at Givon when, in order to have enough daylight to keep fighting, Joshua commanded the sun to stand still in the sky, and it “stopped” (using the same language as “silence,” va-yidom). This event, along with the splitting of the Red Sea, is one of the paradigmatic miracles in the Bible: the day the sun stood still.

Now take that image and read it back into our moment with Aaron. What was happening to him in that silence? It was that sensation that often overtakes us in these times of greatest trauma: time stands still.

Everything starts to move slowly, and then stops. And all the sounds become muffled as we sink into a chamber of stunned silence. The world recedes, and for an extended instant there is only that surreal state of shock that keeps the inevitable and overwhelming rush of pain temporarily at a strange distance.

Aaron was in that chamber of silence. He was reeling from the sudden loss – still confused, still putting together the impossible reality of what had just happened. Moses was trying to talk to him, but Aaron was far away…

As he looked out, the world around him had come to a halt. To Aaron, it was we who had gone silent, standing still, like the sun at Givon.

Meanwhile, what was taking place inside Aaron’s reality?

Here I venture to suggest a connection of my own. For I am reminded of another great Biblical silence. It is in the Book of Kings, when Elijah has run off into the wilderness, to leave society and be alone with God. And God seems to pass by, first in a great wind, and then an earthquake. But we are told that “the Lord was not in the wind, nor the earthquake”:

And after the earthquake – fire; and the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire – a small, silent sound. (I Kings 19:12)

וְאַחַר הָרַעַשׁ אֵשׁ, לֹא בָאֵשׁ יְהוָה; וְאַחַר הָאֵשׁ, קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה.

This silence, like Aaron’s, follows a display of fire. But here we are told that God was not in the fire, but in the silence.

The fire that killed Aaron’s sons seemed to come from God, and to represent God’s unmerciful will. But how does one find God in that? How can you possibly see God when your children lay dead before you? How dare Moses – how dare any of us – try to find some divine justification for such a tragedy?

No. Aaron would not hear it. Could not hear it. He was in his silence.

Yet maybe it was there, in the silence, that he found God again. Maybe, like Elijah, God spoke to Aaron through the sound of silence – and Aaron spoke back in silence.

For it is difficult to see God in all the terrible tragedies of this world. But we may discover God in our response to them.

Not in the fire, but in the silence.

About Rabbi David Kasher

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