The sound of silence

As we approach Yom Hashoah this year, the silence is deafening.

Pertinently reported this week, Dan Plesch, author of the newly published Human Rights After Hitler, argues that the Allied Powers were aware of the scale of the Jewish Holocaust two-and-a-half years earlier than is generally assumed. Yet, they were silent in words and certainly in deeds. That silence was and remains deafening. A malevolent silence of apathy.

The portion of Shmini read on the cusp of Yom Hashoah  that also musters the introspective period which incorporates, Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, records what must be one of the most tragic and theologically challenging events; the death of Aaron’s sons. Nadav and Avihu are instantly consumed by fire for having offered a “strange” fire that was not commanded. The enigmatic episode has predictably caused much ink and many tears to be spilled, but why is the Torah silent? More crucial why is Aaron? Is this like other qualities of Aaron; the lover and pursuer of peace, something we must aspire to replicate? These days of remembering cry out, often in silence, to comprehend the unfathomable and to generate responses to the unthinkable.

The only time that the term vayidom occurs throughout the Torah is here in the portion of Shmini (Vayikra Ch 10 v 3) וידם אהרון Aharon (when Moshe his brother tries to comfort him) was silent. What is the derivative of this unrivalled word? At the climax of the liturgy of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in the poignant Unetaneh Tokef prayer we have the striking phrase ובשופר גדול יתקע וקול דממה דקה ישמע ; “… and a great horn shall be sounded, but a thin, small voice shall be heard…” How are we to understand the incongruous phrase the Kol Demama, the voice or sound of silence? Perhaps Aaron’s most intimate yet public show of grief, his Vayidom, exemplifies that there are sounds that defy speech, sounds that are higher than speech. In modern Hebrew the (military) command  Amod Dom, stand still, or at attention, arouses that allusion; standing in silence whilst being highly attuned. How astonishing if not fitting that in Israel during the customary siren on Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron, we actually adopt Aaron’s reaction – we stand silently-  Omdim Dom

Is there an appropriate silence of awe and reverence as opposed to a silence of apathy? Is the silence of awe not a non-reaction but perhaps the only reaction? Is the silence of apathy one that Aaron himself, the lover and pursuer of peace, the person who could not abide conflict and strife, would not cry out against?

As we gather for our national and personal ceremonies, at the Kotel, Har Herzl, Community Centers, Synagogues and at homes in salons, let the moments of silence inform the moments of speech. Let our reflections of the past enlighten and brighten our futures and let the outcries of our Biblical and prophetic leaders, Aaron included, prompt not only our reaction but the necessary action.

About the Author
Shalom is a senior educator and consultant for the iCenter. Prior, he served as the AVI CHAI Project Director and Director of Education in the Shlichut and Israel Fellows unit for the Jewish Agency. He has a rich background in camping, running various camps in England where he grew up and later serving as the Education Director at Ramah Poconos. He has served as a consultant for the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Jewish Peoplehood Committee, and teaches a course in experiential education at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Shalom was also a scholar on the prestigious Jerusalem Fellows Program, after which he served as the Executive Director of Jewish Renewal for United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA). Shalom has a strong passion for teaching, feels privileged to live in Jerusalem and loves sharing stories about life in the Land of so much Promise.
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