Yael Unterman

Aaron’s moment of thundering silence

Perhaps by virtue of the awful and terrible experience of the death of his sons, the high priest made himself the highest vessel in the service of the Divine (Shemini)
Aaron the High Priest beholds the fire that kills his sons, Nadav and Avhiu. (via YouTube)
Aaron the High Priest beholds the fire that kills his sons, Nadav and Avhiu. (via YouTube)

I love to traverse my year through the prism of the biblical characters, but I find myself a little harder pressed to do so in the book of Leviticus. The middle book  of the Torah contains primarily technical material relating to sacrifices and other priestly activities; this is not the wonderfully rich narratives in Genesis where I am spoiled for choice.

Yet priests are people too. And some of them we have been following for a while now… well, primarily Aaron the High Priest. Precisely how long depends on whether we choose to begin his story from his implied presence as a small child in the narrative around Moses’ birth (he’s not explicitly mentioned there – but where else would a 3-year-old be?), or alternatively from when he is named and becomes his illustrious brother’s right hand man, 80 years later.

Aaron is a somewhat enigmatic figure. Hailing from the most important Jewish family who ever lived (sorry Rothschilds), caught between his two spiritually colossal siblings, prophets and leaders Miriam and Moses, yet also destined for greatness himself, Aaron somehow manages, despite the major role he plays, to remain partially in the shadows.

He is clearly second to Moses, as they come before Pharaoh, being an assistant given to Moses, due to the latter’s speech limitations; and yet he was the one who God used to bring the first three plagues. At the battle of Refidim against Amalek, Aaron supports Moses’ arms along with Hur, and once again he is seen helping his brother in a crucial but secondary role. And when he is seen acting independently of Moses, still up on Mount Sinai, in his pivotal role in creating the Golden Calf, that does not work out well! He makes Jewish history, but not in a good way. So our impressions of Aaron’s character throughout the book of Exodus are mixed. He is chosen to be the High Priest, so he must be of good character, but we find it hard to grasp the nature of the man.

But now we come to the book of Leviticus which, in Parshat Shemini, contains one of the seminal moments of Aaron’s life and one of the most staggering moments of the entire Torah.

I refer to what occurs on the first of Nissan, at the consecration of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle). It is a glorious and terrible day. A fire emerges from before the Lord, consumes the burnt offering and the people shout and fall on their faces, as appropriate to such a momentous occasion. But then Aaron’s  two sons, newly minted priests Nadav and Avihu, bring some kind of “strange fire before the Lord, that He did not command them” and are instantly killed by divine fire.

The entire incident in all its shocking and tragic drama, takes up a mere few lines at the beginning of chapter 10:

“1. And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire in it, and put incense on it, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not. 2. And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. 3. Then Moses said to Aaron, This is what the Lord spoke, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come near to me, and before all the people I will be glorified. Vayidom Aaron.

As happens when we peruse the first few verses of the book of Ruth, the murder of Abel, and other life-and-death events, we are once more struck by the evidence that the Bible is not a novel. How quickly it leaps over entire worlds of emotion, drama, and process, rushing past deaths, glossing over crucial details. While this might feel frustrating, it is precisely these gaps that leave us room to ponder, to speculate, to fill in, and receive new insights each time.

So here we have Aaron on the biggest day of his life, with the consecration of the Mishkan that has been built so carefully and will be his workplace for the rest of his life. A megawatt spotlight has been shone upon him and his sons as the new priests. He witnesses the fearsome divine fire that causes the people to fall on their faces, but he must steel himself to remain standing. He knows he will be coming into intimate contact with this awesome mysterium on a daily basis. And then his two elder sons are devoured by that very flame.

Can we imagine what he feels at that moment? I don’t think we truly can, for none of us have stood in these precise shoes. But we do know his behavioral response, and we can, I believe, discuss what it implies.

The Hebrew word used is vayidom. Most translations render this as “And Aaron was silent” or “held his peace.” Aaron refrains from speaking. What is the nature of this silence?

Silence is something that, due precisely to its lack of articulation, can be any one of a number of things. One therapeutic technique is simply to sit silently with the patient, and wait to see what the patient projects into the silence – which is essentially nothing, a “no thing”: like the manna, whatever you make it to be. So what might Aaron’s silence be?

On a most basic level, he might simply be speechless. There are situations where one simply does not know what to say; where it might take hours, days, weeks, months to process what has happened.

On the next level up, he might be holding himself back from reacting. With a maelstrom of emotion raging in his breast, he does not feel this is the time or place to release it.

The ability to restrain speech, and especially while in a state of powerful emotion, is a trait we saw earlier in Joseph, in his dealings as an adult with his brothers. It is certainly not easy for Joseph, and at one point he has to turn aside and weep; but he forces himself to do it for the sake of the greater good, because it is the right thing to do.[1]

Aaron seems to be similarly be practicing that trait of restraint. Kabbalistically speaking, in the tree of 10 emanations, the sefirah of hod (splendor) is the one associated with Aaron. Hod represents, among other things, humility and surrender. It is found on the left column of the sefirotic tree, a column associated with restriction and constraint. Tzimtzum, the constriction or withdrawal by means of which God created the world, is associated with gevurah, the middle sefirah of the left column, just above hod. In holding back any expression of rage, pain, or criticism, Aaron is exemplifying the ultimate in this trait.

Interestingly enough, there is a talmudic legal concept of shtika ke-hoda’ah damia –  “silence is deemed tacit admission and acceptance.” Legally, a person who says nothing is assumed to be in agreement with whatever is being stated. The word for acceptance is hoda’ah, containing the root hod; and thus the connection between hod and silence is strengthened, and hod is again acceptance and surrender to whatever is occurring.

Yet even this is too facile, and we have not yet done justice to everything Aaron is in this moment. The English translations are not nuanced enough: they fail us here, for the word used in the Torah is not vayishtok (and he was silent); it is vayidom. This is closer to “remaining stock still, unmoving.” A domem is an inanimate object. We encounter the verb dom in an equally dramatic verse in Joshua (10:12), where in the midst of battle, Joshua through God commands a miracle to occur:

Sun, stand still (dom) upon Gibeon; and you, Moon, in the valley of Ayalon.

The miracle indeed occurs, and the sun pauses in its motion across the sky, allowing the battle to be won.

The textual linkage of the two passages via the word dom asks us to compare Aaron to the sun. His stillness and lack of reaction is not simply his nature; it is of an order that transcends all natural order, just as a sun suspended in the sky does. For a father to refrain from any reaction or motion after the violent death of his two sons is beyond the realm of expected human behavior. The very name of the parsha, Shemini, points to this, with the number eight representing transcendence of natural law. Aaron here, more than at any moment in his life, proves his mettle and shows us that he is no mere second in command. He is a luminary as powerful as the sun, who nonetheless bends to God’s will for the sake of Israel.

I could end here; but because this is such a sensitive and serious issue, I want to round it out with a point or two. Firstly, while this is inspiring, we have to be careful when aspiring to imitate such a high level – we might end simply “spiritual bypassing” and repressing our genuine feelings. We do see Aaron expressing his grief towards the end of the chapter (see 10:19, and Rashi and Ibn Ezra there), which is a healthy reaction. This does not negate who and what he was at the moment after the deaths. So when we lose our loved ones, especially in violent circumstances, we do need to be authentic and natural and grieve as we need to, in tandem with any spiritual and transcendent response. Don’t forget that Jacob never stopped mourning for Joseph, whom he believed to have been ravaged by wild beasts.

Secondly, does Aaron’s moment of transcendence and surrender lead to anything? Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (Likutei Moharan 6) speaks of a situation where one hears oneself being insulted or ridiculed, but nonetheless remains still (veyidom) and silent. He connects dom to dam, blood, because (as the rabbis tell us) when one is ridiculed, it as if one’s blood is being spilled…. And yet, he adds, by lessening the blood in the left ventricle of the heart, it hollows it out in humility, slaughtering the evil inclination, so that the person can come to see the face of God. I find this a challenging but powerful spiritual practice.

And thus, an idea that I offer with some trepidation is that Aaron himself needed to go through this awful and terrible experience, in order for him to complete the process of becoming the highest vessel for the divine worship. (This is not to take away from his sons’ culpability and free will, but rather to imply that there is a ripple effect, and it served in some way for Aaron’s growth too. Had they not died, perhaps a different way would have had to be found to prepare him for his task).

And finally, in a different Torah from Rebbe Nachman (Likutei Moharan 65) we find that when a person undergoes deep suffering and accepts it with self-nullification (bitul), that this leads to “renewed Torah” in that person. We see that almost immediately following Aaron’s vayidom moment, God speaks to him (10:8):

8. And the Lord spoke to Aaron, saying, 9. Do not drink wine nor strong drink, you, nor your sons with you, when you go into the Tent of Meeting, lest you die; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations; 10. And that you may differentiate between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean; 11. And that you may teach the people of Israel all the statutes which the Lord has spoken to them by the hand of Moses.

It is very rare for God to speak solely to Aaron; we can count the number of times on the fingers of one hand. Here, Aaron receives prophecy, he receives the instruction directly – not only about the wine and the priestly responsibilities, but also to be a teacher to the entire people. It may well be that by means of his immense spiritual effort, Aaron merits this moment of direct Divine revelation and new Torah coming through him.

So in sum: we can take an example from Aaron in attempting, through our own spiritual effort and self-nullification, to receive our portion of divine revelation for our mission, whatever that may be. But we can also see that a short time after achieving this, Aaron is human and grieving. That too is an example for us, of the natural and healthy ebb and flow of spiritual life within the human heart.

[1] Joseph’s intrinsic trait is actually the opposite, to be the forerunner, pushing ahead of everyone else – thus he is the first to come down to Egypt, and Messiah son of Joseph is the forerunner for Messiah son of David. Yet he and his descendants need to learn to rein that in and hold back their natural inclination when not appropriate, because there is a time and place for everything. See for example the Ephraimites who, according to the midrash, exited the slavery in Egypt prematurely and ended up as bleached bones strewn upon the path.

About the Author
Yael Unterman is a Jerusalem-based international author, lecturer, Bibliodrama facilitator and life coach. Her first book "Nehama Leibowitz, Teacher and Bible Scholar" was a finalist in the 2009 National Jewish Book Awards . Her second book, a collection of fictional stories, "The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love & Longing", was a finalist for the USA Best Book Awards. Contact Yael if you would like to participate in Bibliodrama sessions on Zoom.
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