Parshat Shmini (Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47)
Parshat Shemini draws its unique name from the first and central part of the weekly portion, which describes the sequence of events that transpired on the eighth day after the consecration of the Mishkan (Sanctuary) – the sky-high expectations and the terrible tragedy at the end of that day.
The Torah describes, in great length, how, after Aharon, the High Priest, and his four sons had spent seven days preparing and practicing, Moshe summons them and explains to each of them what work will need to be done in the Mishkan on the eighth day – who would slaughter the sacrificial animal, who would throw the blood of the sacrifice, where it would be thrown, and so on.
At first, everything seemed to have proceeded as planned. The narrative climaxes when Aharon raised his arms over the nation and blesses it. The glory of Hashem appeared among the people, and a fire went forth from in front of Hashem and consumed the meat of the sacrifice. The entire nation was awestruck, and the people bowed down before Hashem, as we read in the verse:
“… the entire nation saw and they praised and fell upon their faces.” (Vayikra / Leviticus 9:24)
But something goes horribly wrong, and jubilation turns into mourning. Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, burn a “strange incense”, lighting a fire that was not supposed to have been lit, and the two of them are burned alive:
“A fire came forth from before Hashem and consumed them, and they died before Hashem.” (Vayikra / Leviticus 10:2)
Many commentators have tried to understand what their sin was, what had compelled them to do what they did, and most importantly, why were they were so harshly punished. Our study of this episode will focus on Moshe’s response to the terrible event. Moshe seemingly wants to propose a theological response to the tragedy, quoting Hashem saying:
“I will be sanctified through those who are close to me.” (Vayikra / Leviticus 10:3)
This is a rather vague statement that has been explained in many different ways over the generations. In today’s day and age, we would summarize the explanation as follows: Hashem picks the most beautiful flowers in His garden in order to establish His stewardship over the world. Aharon hears what his brother says, and opts to remain silent: “and Aharon fell silent” (ibid.).
What I have always found fascinating is not just the way that Aharon responds to Moshe, but that the Torah chose to relate his reaction. What lies behind Aharon’s silence? Was it some kind of thundering silence? Was it an attempt to express wonderment? An attempt to understand and cope?
By remaining silent, was Aharon accepting the Divine sentence? Or was he simply feeling shocked and helpless? Some of our sages interpreted Aharon’s silence as an acceptance of Moshe’s words of consolation. Moshe had essentially told him that his sons were great, holy men, and that this is why the Holy One Blessed Be He was so scrupulous with them, and why he judged their actions so rigorously.
Others point out that the word vayiddom, “and he fell silent”, indicates that Aharon could, and perhaps even wanted, to say something, but he decided to remain silent. What did he want to say? We don’t know. However, it stands to reason that a person in this kind of situation would want to mete out some harsh words to heaven, or to Moshe, for having assigned the duties of the Kehuna, the priestly work, to him and his children. He might have wanted to ask some pointed questions on the reason for the harsh punishment, meted out during a day of celebration.
However, Aharon was quiet. This was a silence that sought out meaning and explanations. It was a silence that was crying out, begging to understand, but in some corner of Aharon’s heart, it was also, apparently, about Aharon coming to terms with the fact that he will never be privy to this secret. This may have been the first time that the Torah described a state of agony and mourning to which a person is unable to attach any sense.
It turns out that in a complex world, such as ours, not everything can be understood and appreciated “in the here and now”. Aharon’s silence doesn’t necessarily indicate consolation. We can reasonably assume that he took his agony with him to the grave, and wasn’t consoled during his lifetime. His silence might beckon us to understand that we needn’t react verbally to every event. Sometimes, this silence signals to us that we would be well-advised to listen intently to the reality enveloping us, taking inventory of the ensemble of events, from start to finish, with the understanding that “perhaps, the answer is awaiting at the end of the road”, in the words of the great Israeli singer and songwriter, Arik Einstein.
Many of our forefathers, who survived the horrors of the Holocaust, harbored pointed questions that cried out to the heavens. Their cries, along with the thundering silence of the millions of victims, echoed from one side of the world to the other. A select few were gifted with the pen, and could express their pain and agony to others. Others cried out bitterly at having lost those they held dearest during the war. Some turned their backs on people they had expected help from. Others still kept quiet, and their silence echoes throughout the expanses of our world, striking at the very underpinnings of our existence as human beings.
This silence, this glance that seeks to understand, to see justice done and to find answers, while acknowledging our limitations as human beings, holds the secret to all of humanity.
[Translated from the Hebrew by Ilan Yavor]
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