I am stuck in the silence of last week.
As Jewish communities around the world gather this Saturday, April 22, 2023, to read from the Torah portion of Tazria-Metzorah, I am still dealing with the trauma of last week’s portion, and the stunning silence that accompanied it.
In a way it’s personal. Last week was the 22nd anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah, and I celebrated the occasion by reading the very same Torah portion, Parshat Shemini, which marked my entry into manhood.
At the heart of my portion is the story of Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aaron the High Priest who are killed by a Heavenly fire as they brought an offering to G-d during the dedication of the Tabernacle. When I first read this account as a 13-year-old, I was amazed by its action-filled pyrotechnics. Today, having learned about life through the birth of my two daughters and, conversely, death through the loss of friends in the army and other Israeli frameworks, my view of the story is decidedly different.
In my new life role as an Israeli father, I am no longer fascinated by the flames, but devastated by Aaron’s loss. This sense of shared grief was particularly poignant this year on the backdrop of the recent Passover murder of Rina, Maia, and Lucy Dee at the hands of Palestinian terrorists. At the height of a holiday, in the blink of an eye, Israel’s collective heart broke as a family was left bereft.
Yet, there is a small comfort to be found in the tragedy of Nadav and Avihu. While the trauma of their loss is so great that next week’s portion of Acharei Mot frames its opening dialogue as taking place “After the death of Aaron’s two sons,” Aaron’s response to the original tragedy in Shemini is remarkably condensed.
And Aaron was silent
To a certain extent, there is no response, and Aaron and his surviving sons continue with their prescribed Tabernacle duties in a silence that demands explanation.
A broad consensus exists among commentators that Aaron was completely silent, as described by the famous French commentator, Rashi, or at the very least (as taught by Nachmanides) shed quiet tears or stopped his crying thanks to Moses’s words of consolation.
Rashi’s grandson, the Rashbam, offers that Aaron “stopped his mourning, and did not cry or mourn”, instead stifling his grief for the sake of continuing with his holy duties – a striking example of rising and continuing with life in the face of unbearable tragedies.
Does this mean, as many explain, that Aaron accepted the painful decree calmly and with a tranquil soul?
Don Isaac Abarbanel, the 16th century Portuguese sage, contends otherwise, explaining that Aaron’s heart “was still as stone… he no longer had any soul nor ability to speak.”
Sometimes in life there are simply no words to contend with tragedy. In fact, silece, according to Rabbeinu Bahya ben Asher ibn Halawa, is “one of the expressions of mourning.” Aaron and his sons continued with their service of worship – but in a deafening and painful silence still heard today.
Perhaps though, Aaron and his sons continued with their service because it is not in the stormy winds, quaking noise, or fires that tend to visit one during tragedy, rather in the still small voice of silence where one finds G-d.
Aaron’s silence recalls a story about the first time the celebration of completing the seven-and-a-half-year Daf Yomi study cyle of the Talmud was held at Madison Square Garden. The legendary home of the New York Knicks was filled to capacity when, suddenly, the entire crowd rose to their feet and began reciting the silent devotion of the evening prayers.
A hushed silence prevailed upon the Garden, stunning the veteran maintenance staff. Over the years they had gotten used to sound of the game and noise of the fans, but this was the first time in the history of the Garden that they heard the silence thousands could create together.
“Nothing is more whole than a broken heart,” taught the great Hassidic leader known as the Kotzker Rabbi, “and no cry is greater than silence.”
At the end of the day, is impossible to know what Aaron felt at that moment, but perhaps understanding his intent is less important than understanding how we are meant to deal with the silence of others.
Paul Simon once shared that his famous song, The Sound of Silence, described:
The inability of people to communicate with each other, not particularly intentionally but especially emotionally, so what you see around you are people unable to love each other.
Silence is powerful, but if we as people are not attuned or willing to listen to it, silence will forever remain the lone possession of those in pain.
This is not the case in Aaron’s story. While it is true that “Aaron was silent,” his still small voice eventually spilled over to the people who are recorded as crying “the burning kindled by G-d.”
The similarities between the current Torah portions and current events haunt me this year, but also comfort me.
During these times when cries of anger and despair fill both headlines and discourse online, there also exists a strong silence capable of quenching the flames. Over the past two weeks we have heard the still small voice of the Dee family who chose grace over rage and called us to the flag. Now, in the annual period of national mourning, having remembered those who perished in the Holocaust and while preparing to remember those who fell in service of Israel & in countless terror attacks, we gather around the flag once more to share in moments of silence.
A powerful opportunity to listen to the strong silent cry, and through it to reconnect, mourn, and rebuild together.