Shemini: The silence

Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu…offered alien fire before the Lord which He had not commanded them…and fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them, thus they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord meant when He said, Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.” And Aaron was silent. (Vayikra 10:1-3.)

When you lifted your hands
and blessed the people,
did you see your older sons
from the corner of your eye?
Did you dream of blessings
they would bestow,
of priestly duties
they would fulfil?
Before your eyes
they were consumed by fire,
like the offerings
they had learned to bring near.
You heard your brother
speak to you,
murmuring words
– were they solace?
But from you: no agonised cries;
no accusations,
no questions –
silence?


The commentators wrestle with the circumstances of the deaths of two of Aaron’s sons. However, an even more arresting mystery seems to be Aaron’s response to this tragic loss: “vayidom Aharon – and Aaron was silent.” The Torah does not usually call attention to someone not speaking. The Etz Hayim commentary addresses the unusual significance of Aaron’s silence, asking whether he accepted God’s decree without protest; whether his anguish was too great for him to articulate; whether he was tempted to burst out in anger at the unfairness of the blow that had devastated his family but somehow managed to hold back. The Etz Hayim says that perhaps the text is hinting that “sometimes there are more possibilities – and more power – in silence.”

In a commentary on Shemini written in April 2000, Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz points out that Aaron neither protested, as Abraham had before him, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Bereishit 18:25) nor did he cry out like Jacob when he believed Joseph had been killed, “I will go down mourning to my son in Sheol!” (Bereishit 37:35). Rabbi Berkowitz wonders why Aaron was silent. He brings the commentaries of several exegetes:

Rashi understands “vayidom Aharon” literally as “and Aaron was silent,” which he interprets as submissive acceptance, for which he derives that Aaron was rewarded (based on Vayikra Rabbah 12). In this view, although Aaron cannot comprehend God’s ways, he does not question or challenge them.

Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, also reads this phrase as signifying Aaron’s acceptance but brings a sense of Aaron struggling before he reaches equanimity. Rashbam understands “vayidom” in the context of Ezekiel: God declares to the prophet, “O mortal, I am about to take away the delight of your eyes from you through pestilence; but you shall not lament or weep or let your tears flow. Moan softly; be silent in mourning the dead …” (Ezekiel 24:16-17). Though the Israelites naturally want to mourn the tragedy about to strike them, God commands them to refrain from any expression of public mourning and so they are silent. Viewing Aaron’s behavior in this context, Rashbam depicts Aaron as far less accepting than Rashi does. Indeed, Rashbam describes Aaron’s inner turmoil, saying, “Aaron refrained from that which he had wanted to mourn and to cry over.” He suggests that Aaron suppressed his feelings for the sake of God and for the sake of the whole community.

Ramban brings two possibilities. One is that “vayidom” means “he became silent,” – in other words, first Aaron cried out and then he fell silent. Here Ramban posits that Aaron did express his grief and then lapsed into a contemplative silence, not necessarily an accepting one, rather a questioning one in which he struggled to comprehend God’s unfathomable ways. Ramban’s second theory is that “vayidom” here means, “he ceased,” which he derives from Aichah 2:18, “…let not the apple of your eye cease.” Ramban suggests that Aaron ceased to shed tears. This fits with his first suggestion and reflects his belief that Aaron did cry over his sons’ deaths. Only here, he suggests that the silence denotes that Aaron has moved past his grief into acceptance and then ceases to mourn.

These commentaries present a range of possible interpretations of Aaron’s silence on the deaths of his sons, from total and complete acceptance to a painful cry and mild protest. Rabbi Berkowitz comments: “Ramban’s explanation is most appealing to me: he recognizes that mourning must precede the acceptance of a loss of someone so dear to one’s soul. Moreover, expressing one’s emotion at such a time is not only human — it is profoundly Jewish, even central to our laws of mourning. A house of mourning becomes a safe space to speak of the pain of loss. There, the community comes together, bringing God’s Presence back into the life of the mourner.”

Rabbi Berkowitz quotes an essay by Rabbi Milton Steinberg entitled, To Hold with Open Arms: “Given God, everything becomes more precious … [but] it is easier for me to let go. For these things are not and never have been mine. They belong to the universe and the God who stands behind it. True, I have been privileged to enjoy them for an hour, but they were always a loan due to be recalled. And I let go of them more easily because I know that as parts of the divine economy they will not be lost.”

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