Shemini: When Silence is the only response

One of the saddest moments in bible is found in Shemini – Aaron and his sons have just been inaugurated as priests in a week long ceremony and now the tent of meeting is being dedicated. The first offering is given by Aaron and is accepted as a fire descends from the heavens to consume it. The people bow down and worship. And then Nadav and Avihu the two older sons of Aaron offer a strange fire before God and the fire descends once more from the heavens – to consume their lives.

Aaron’s response – “va’yidom Aharon” – is to be silent. How can this be? To have finally reached the climax of priesthood only to see two children of your children destroyed by the object of that ministry. To be a father twice bereaved yet not to protest and shout out. Why does Torah tell us that Aaron, the man whose speech was smooth and fluent and who would act as the mouthpiece of his brother Moses in Egypt, had no words at this moment?

Words can be so healing – we are taught always to express clearly what we need in order to communicate with others, to use words to acknowledge our feelings be they painful or joyous. From private prayer to modern psychotherapy we are taught about the power of words to change or to complete us. Creation begins with words: God speaks and creation comes about. We transmit our tradition in storytelling, we see ourselves as a people who argue with God, who are not ever silenced – we are a noisy, challenging people who will argue with a text, giving voices to the long dead sages of our tradition. Yet “Aaron was silent” (Lev. 10:3). And this silence is seen in our tradition as a right and proper response – the Midrash Leviticus Rabbah comments on this verse: “Aaron was rewarded for his silence.” Clearly we have to look deeper. Why is the silence of a man so unfairly hit by tragedy seen in our tradition as a response to be rewarded? Why should he not be crying out against a God who did not protect the young men whose only wrong seems to have been an excess of religious fervour, who certainly did not deserve to die?

In the Talmud we find the statement that “the world is preserved only because of those who stop themselves from speaking out in difficult moments of strife” (B.T. Hullin 89a). We also find that it is an attribute of God to be seen to be silent at such times, – a rereading of the verse ‘mi chamocha ba’elim Adonai’ is understood not as “who is like you amongst the Elim – the mighty gods of other peoples”, but rather as “Who is like You, able to be silent?” – “Ilmim” (BT Gittin 66a). Sometimes silence is the only response. Anything else would diminish the enormity of the experience.

In Jewish tradition one does not speak to a mourner until the mourner speaks to you. It is a tradition that understands the depth of grief. When grief is intense any statement is bound at best to be irrelevant and at worst a serious intrusion. That is not to say we ignore a mourner or their grief, we do not cross the street to avoid meeting them nor leave them in their pain – but there is a communication that surpasses language, which any words would disrupt or divert. In mourning that may be simply sitting with and being with the mourner, in shared silence. It may be a warm embrace or a fleeting touch of the hand. It may be a meeting of the eye, a moment of contact which says “I am here and I care”. There is nothing more to offer than the compassionate presence – certainly there is nothing further to say.

There are times in our history when words are not just unhelpful – they might be actively destructive, causing a break in the relationships between us or between us and God. And these are the times when the silence of Aaron becomes understandable.

The text emphasizes that Aaron’s two elder sons were acting “before the Eternal.” Both the offerings they made and their death were “before the Eternal.” The plain sense of the text indicates that, apparently moved by religious fervour, they added an extra incense to the usual incense offering without having been commanded to do so. That is all. One would have thought this is no great crime for young men who have just finished their priestly training and are one day into the work. They are simply intoxicated with the role, acting out of extraordinary piety to add yet more offerings to God. At most they are guilty of what we are told in a later passage in Leviticus – that “They drew too close to the presence of God” (Leviticus 16:1). Surely we could expect for Aaron to respond to their violent and sudden deaths by arguing with God, just as Moses had done on several occasions before this. Surely Aaron could justify the actions of his sons to God and demand some compassionate – even miraculous – response. But Aaron was silent. He made no attempt to communicate his anguish – and surely his anger – to God.

This is unusual in our picture of Aaron, which has been improved in rabbinic teachings so that he becomes an active pursuer of peace (Avot 1:12 etc), a man who advocates peace and who is the earliest practitioner of what we now call “shuttle diplomacy. Yet in this situation his skills are redundant. There is nothing to do, nothing to say. His tragedy is too raw, too personal, too much. Should he speak what could he say? If he is able to put into words even the smallest part of his pain he would surely only create a rift between himself and God – how could he not? And what benefit would his speech produce? God is clearly not going to perform a miracle, turn back time, resurrect his dead. There is nothing, nothing at all, he can say.

This week we will be commemorating an event as raw, as incomprehensible, as painful as the event in Shemini – it will be Yom HaShoah and we will be coming together to be with each other in order to remember. But what will be able to say in the face of the enormity, the singular extra-ordinary time when our people were persecuted and destroyed with terrifying efficiency on a grand scale by national governments? There are those who railed against God, whose words led them to a permanent rift, losing their faith and any possibility of comfort from our Jewish God. There are those who attempted to make sense, who spoke of the implicit guilt of the victims – just as there are those who say that Nadav and Avihu must have been guilty of arrogance or even idolatry. And those whose attempts to make sense of the Shoah lead them to see the State of Israel as having emerged from it as a sort of divine compensation. There are those who are able to forgive God for the silence in the Shoah, but will never forgive people and so live lives of alienation and bitterness. But any response is too small, too diminishing of the event, pointless. Some things require us not to understand, not to argue against, not to justify nor to console – they are things about which the only response is a silence in which we can be. Not a silence that suppresses or ignores, but a silent being together.

During the service of brit milah (circumcision) there is a verse taken from the book of Exodus about the blood of the Passover lamb – God says “va’omar lach b’damayich chayee” –I say to you by your blood you shall live. The Dubner Maggid asks – why the extra word – lach – for you? And answers his own question – this is about the precious blood that is spilled – God will respond, will not leave you in despair. But B’damayich chayee can also be translated a different way – damayich does not have to mean ‘your blood’ but ‘your silence’. Sometimes it is only with silence that we can go on – any other response would be too destructive to us, would drag us into a vortex of pain from which we would be unable to emerge.

I cannot find it in me to believe that the shedding of blood is the call to which God will always respond, regardless of the teachings of our tradition. But I can understand the need for silence, that silence sometimes is the only thing that will allow us to go on, to not be desperately searching all the time for an elusive explanation, for a response that will make sense, for a grand plan in which such terrible sacrifice is given honourable meaning. Like Aaron knew, some things are beyond words, beyond reason, beyond our ability to contain or order their meaning. Sometimes you just have to simply be, to witness, to remember, and to be with the people who themselves experienced the horror in compassionate wordless togetherness.

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