Shemini: When Is Silence The Best Answer?

Did Moses comfort his brother or offend him?

The strange aftermath of a father’s nightmare in the wilderness.

Table for Five: Shemini

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord spoke, [when He said], ‘I will be sanctified through those near to Me, and before all the people I will be glorified.'” And Aaron was silent.
Lev. 10:3

Gershon Schusterman, Rabbi, Businessman, Mashpia

For having “offered an unauthorized, strange fire,” Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, died at the Tabernacle’s inauguration. To console Aaron, Moses said that God was thus sanctified, implying that their deaths was an exalted event. Rashi says that Moses told his brother, “I knew the Tabernacle would be sanctified through those intimate with God, and I thought it would be me or you. But now I see that your sons were greater than us.” Now, it is obvious that what they had done was wrong. How can this be reconciled with their closeness to God being greater than even Moses and Aaron’s?

The mystical interpretation casts an illuminating take on this event.

Death is not in and of itself tragic. The circumstances surrounding it determine the appropriate response. The end of a holy life well lived, can be a call for celebration.

The Tabernacle’s inauguration commemorated God’s moving-in with His beloved—the Jewish people—into their new home. This was an opportunity to sanctify and exalt God through displaying the exemplary devotion of those most intimate with Him. The young and impetuous Nadav and Avihu, righteous though they were, stoked their holy ecstasy to the point of no return, expiring in their unauthorized, strange fire. They were sinful for having exceeded the appropriateness of how to worship God, yet at the pinnacle of their ecstatic rapture they were closer and more intimate than Moses and Aaron.

“And Aaron [comforted by Moses’ words and submitting to God’s will], was silent.”

Rivkah Slonim, Education Director at the Rohr Chabad Center at Binghamton University

As the war in the Ukraine rages on, my thoughts go to the iconic words we chant on Yom Kippur: who shall live and who shall die. And just as urgently: how will we live?  Why? For what?

My father was born in Charkyv during World War II. In fact, the hospital was bombed just as he entered this world and his mother was forced to swoop him up—still attached to her by the umbilical cord –and run for their lives. Living in Ukraine as observant Jews in those days meant certain danger and enormous self-sacrifice. Their eventual escape was fraught with peril. Miraculously they resettled in Israel. 

Today my father counts almost forty descendants who serve as Shluchim/chot  (male and female emissaries) in the Rebbe’s army. I, my siblings and many of our children are stationed in locations as varied as Luxemburg, New Jersey, Munich, Connecticut and Monaco, among others. Until most recently, even for the shluchim/chot in Russia and in the Ukraine, the decades of self-sacrifice in the former Soviet Union seemed to give way to a new, almost prosaic form of burning devotion. 

And then, a few days ago a picture surfaced on social media of a 44-year-old man who had just been circumcised in a Chabad Center in Ukraine, all while shell fire rained down outside.  And the ancient words from our verse reminded me: “Through those that are near me, I shall be sanctified.” That is how, why, and for what we live.

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth Am

In Jewish and secular lore and law, silence is acquiescence. In square-jawed-cowboy culture, silence is resolve. In eastern traditions, silence is meditative and contemplative. In an argument, silence can be maddening, suggesting the other’s unwillingness to engage; or it can be comforting, representing intentional listening. Silence is a Rorschach test. It is nothing, and everything, and sometimes means what the observer of it senses it means.

Rabbinic interpretation makes many things of Aaron’s silence after his sons’ tragic deaths. Rashi reads Aaron’s silence as steely, equanimous faith, for which Aaron was rewarded. While it is hard to valorize utter quietude in the face of such tragedy, as suppressing real emotions can lead to great emotional pain, meeting certain moments of travail with full acceptance can also be a pathway through the bleakness. An even more challenging model may be the one offered by Rabbi Shlomo HaKohen of Radomsk, an 18th C. Hasidic master, as he contrasts Aharon’s silence with King David’s joyful eruption from the depth of darkness. In Psalm 30, David describes tearful nights and mournful days, a reality of depression. And yet the Psalm ends with David’s proclaiming that, even amidst the pain, he will sing joyfully to God, and not be silent, using the same Hebrew word used in our verse.

Some tragedies are too overwhelming to simply sing through. There are times for quiet mourning and audible weeping. And yet, we live only once, a life which continues even after our loved ones die. Ought we not at least attempt to live, even through pain, with song? With dance? With exultation?

Judy Gruen, Author, “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith.”

Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu had brought “strange fire,” unauthorized incense offerings, on the Altar of the newly constructed Tabernacle. Whether they had gotten carried away in spiritual ecstasy or had decided to “improve” upon God’s instructions, this improvising proved a catastrophic error. God took their lives as a result. It was a shocking denouement to the festive inaugural service of the Tabernacle, the new focal point of our service to God. Here, Moses tries to comfort his brother over these losses. Aaron’s silence is a haunting testimony to his acceptance of God’s judgment.

Judaism is only meaningful and viable when we are loyal to God’s word through following halacha. This creates a community of shared values. However, Judaism based exclusively on formulaic instructions soon becomes dry and cold. That’s why we also need kavana, the heartfelt inspiration that infuses soul into to physical actions. However, Judaism based exclusively on DIY heartfelt inspiration not only lacks credibility; it is unsustainable. 

The Tabernacle service affirms that both halacha and kavana are vital to a thriving Jewish spirituality. The edifice was built with voluntary contributions by people “whose hearts had motivated them,” or “whose hearts inspired them” – intention was key. While performing the sacrificial service, though, the Kohanim needed to channel their kavana exclusively and totally to God’s exacting instructions. It was no time for DIY spirituality. Ideally, we are all meant to become a mamlechet Kohanim, a nation of priests inspired to live according to God’s flawless blueprint for living.    

Denise Berger, Freelance writer

Vayidom Aharon. Aharon was silent. Two of his sons were consumed by fire after bringing an inappropriate offering. In the very next sentence Moshe has conveyed what seems like an unfeeling message from G-d. And here is Aharon, silent. He doesn’t protest, he doesn’t explode, he doesn’t break down, he doesn’t even ask why. He’s just silent.

We don’t get any more information about this incident. But we do know that Aharon, more than any other figure in Tanach, is associated with love. He is known to be a “rodef shalom”, someone who chases after peacemaking opportunities. When his descendants, the Kohanim, bestow their blessing, they specifically do so “b’ahava”, with love. And when Aharon dies, the entire Jewish people grieve.

I was recently doing a mindfulness class, where the focus was love and compassion. We started in silence. Fifteen minutes in to the thirty-minute session, I found myself wondering, “When are we going to get to the love?” Eventually we got there. And what I realized is that in order to fully connect with the love, we needed to be quiet first.

Maybe this is what Aharon was doing. Maybe he was giving himself the space to just be in that moment, be in his feelings, be in his own heart. Our nature is to constantly express, respond, act. Aharon’s example is showing us a different option, one that cultivates a space for love to grow.

With thanks to Gershon Schusterman, Rivkah Slonim, Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Judy Gruen, and Denise Berger

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