Leah Herzog

Silence allows us to hear the music of the spheres

Bereft of two sons, Aaron models not only how to respond when there are 'no words,' but also how to continue living (Shemini)
'Fire From Heaven Consumes the Sacrifice,' by James Tissot (1836-1902). (public domain)
'Fire From Heaven Consumes the Sacrifice,' by James Tissot (1836-1902). (public domain)

When faced with incomprehensible tragedy, I find myself mute and wordless. I cannot speak, I cannot write, I cannot communicate my thoughts and feelings in any way that another human could comprehend. I devour others’ words because I simply cannot generate my own. Trying to articulate something that is so inchoate and overwhelming is like trying to hold an earthquake in my cupped palms. Since we are the people of the book, the people of words, this sometimes feels like a terrible failure.

However, there is great power in silence and profound spirituality in stillness.

Parashat Shemini begins on the eighth day of sanctifying the Mishkan, the Holy Tabernacle. Detailed in chapter 9 of Leviticus, the eighth day was a very busy one, with Aaron the High Priest at its core. Aaron is commanded by Moses to bring multiple sacrifices for himself and the Israelites. There are countless actions throughout the chapter — Aaron brought the sacrifices; he slaughtered the animals, flayed them, dissected them into pieces, sprinkled the blood on the altar, burnt the innards, the fats, and the flesh. At the end of all of this holy activity, “Moses and Aaron then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of God appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from before God and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces” (Leviticus 9: 23-24).

The day was a success. God was visible and seemed visibly pleased with all this activity. By all standards, it was a very good day.

In chapter 10, however, things go tragically awry. Two of Aaron’s four sons, Nadav and Avihu, offered an “alien fire” (10:1). Another fire came down from God and “consumed them” and “thus they died” (10:2). This happened in front of their father, as well as in front of Moses. Then, in 10:3, Moses says something seemingly ambiguous to Aaron, and Aaron does not respond. Quite the contrary: “Vayidom Aharon” (“Aaron was still”).

The root dom — ubiquitous in Israeli ceremonial life, when soldiers stand “dom,” at attention  — is complex and paradoxical. On the one hand, it means silent or still; on the other hand, it is connected to the word dam, blood, which pulses and throbs. Blood itself is also paradoxical: it symbolizes both life and death, sanctity and spiritual impurity. Adam, humans, pulse with dam, blood and life, while simultaneously being made of the same materials as the inanimate adamah, earth.

There is a famous episode in the book of Joshua (10:12) where the army of Israel needs some extra time to win a decisive battle, and Joshua therefore commands the sun to “stand still in Givon.” Normally, the word for “stand still” is amod; in this verse, however, Joshua commands “Shemesh b’Givon dom.” Time miraculously slowed, lengthening the daylight hours, and the battle was won.

There is a juxtaposition of immobility with tremendous activity on both the physical and metaphysical planes. Radak (13th century) uses a kabbalistic approach to explain the use  of the word dom, one that is also prescient in its description of what would become known as string theory. He explains that every object in the universe, because it was created by God, vibrates with inherent divinity.  Everything — whether animate or inanimate — has a unique song that it sings. This song is its essence and emanates from its very existence. When the song ceases, so does the item’s functioning.  When Joshua commanded the sun to “be still,” he was telling it to stop operating according to its usual course.

When Aaron was silent, he ceased to function, both as a priest and as a person.  Moses turns to others to do what needs to be done next, leaving Aaron standing there, likely stunned and bewildered. The man who was frenetically active is now motionless. The man known for his smooth speech and his ability to bring peace through negotiation and compromise is mute. It is impossible to know what he felt at that moment. Perhaps he felt anger, guilt, shame. Perhaps he was simply numb. Undoubtedly, he felt inexpressible grief. Vayidom.

It is from Elijah, the prophet who was able to call down God’s fire, from whom we learn the true nature of stillness. When Elijah flees to the desert to escape Jezebel and her fatwa, he ends up at Mount Horeb, the very mountain where the Torah was given. God reveals Himself to Elijah, but not in the expected way. First, Elijah experienced an earthquake, a firestorm, and a tornadic wind, but God was in none of these. Then, Elijah perceived a “kol demamah dakah,” a “thin, still voice” (I King, 19:12).  The sound, the voice of God, was specifically in the stillness. The prophetic revelation, the connection with the Divine, could only be heard by Elijah’s inner ear. The stillness and the voice it contained frightened him, but he heard it. And that voice told Elijah that there was still work for him to do, that his job as prophet was not yet over.

It would be easy to see Aaron’s silence and stillness as a weakness, even a failure; it is not wrong to view silence as cessation. But Aaron’s silence, like the sun’s stillness, allowed for the work, and the world, to continue. Silence is a form of death, but it also allows us to hear the music of the spheres, feel our own breath, and sense our souls and our divinity. Silence  allows us, even forces us, to listen, and listening to the communication of others is fundamentally what Aaron sought — harmony, community and peace. In the silence following his sons’ death, Aaron’s community continued his life’s holy work. Moses and the people gave him time to recover, to start breathing and functioning again. Perhaps Aaron was silent because he was simply tuning in — and listening to — the thin, still voice of God.

In the face of incomprehensible tragedy, the Torah has given us a role model for both social harmony and silent agony. We are not alone in our wordlessness.

About the Author
Leah Herzog is a life-long educator, writer, counselor and speaker. She holds Masters Degrees in Education Psychology and Educational Leadership. Leah is passionately committed to building relationships and meaningful living through Torah-writ-large. She made aliya with her husband in 2019, and is the unabashedly proud mother of two adult children. Leah and her husband, Rabbi Avi Herzog, reside in Givat Zev.
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