“Parsha to the Point” – Shemini 5778

Shemini 5778 (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)

Following Passover, we resume reading the regular series of Torah readings, which contain the inauguration of the mishkan, the Tabernacle. After months of fund-raising to acquire the funds needed to build the mishkan, and a complex construction process, Aaron and his sons remain sequestered in the mishkan for seven days to prepare for what lies ahead. Finally, the big day arrives, and Aaron, the high priest, offers up the sacrifices that God had commanded him to offer. At his side are his sons, who participate in the activities, as we reach the apex: “And blessed the people, and the glory of God appeared to all the people.”

The nation witnessed this and was deeply moved, but in the midst of this intense experience, tragedy strikes: Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, had apparently entered the Holy of Holies and offered incense they had not been commanded to offer, after which a fire emanated from the offering and consumed them. Moses tries to console his brother, saying of God: “I will be sanctified through those near to Me.” Put differently, God treats the righteous consistently, and Aaron, for his part, remains silent: “And Aaron was silent.”

Throughout the generations, biblical commentators tried to understand not just how the two sons had sinned, but also what the root cause of their failure was. Dozens of explanations were offered: some say they had drunk too much alcohol, while others claimed they hadn’t consulted with each other or with their elders, their heads were uncovered, and so on.

Yet the Torah seemingly does not discuss the issue, and when Aaron is informed of what had happened, he takes no interest in the details. The text suffices with the laconic description, “and Aaron was silent”. How can we explain his silence? Was it the result of shock, or is there a lesson we can glean from it?

These questions remind me of a story involving my father, of blessed memory, and the Yeshurun Library in Jerusalem. He was the librarian, and often, he would help high school and university students with their papers. One day, a group of students from the Hebrew Gymnasium in Jerusalem arrived and asked for materials on the question of “Where was God during the Holocaust?”

My father, whose family had been nearly obliterated by the Nazis, told the students that we cannot understand God’s actions, and that there is no religious answer to the question of why God allowed the Holocaust to occur.

One daring Yeshiva student stepped up and said that he knew the answer, which he had heard from his rabbi during a lecture at the yeshiva. Before the student could complete the sentence, my father threw him out of the library, exclaiming that he would not allow anyone to justify his sisters’ murder.

The next day, when my father returned to open the library, the yeshiva student stood at the door. He was ashamed, despondent, and barefoot, and he looked like someone who had just been excommunicated. He had arrived to ask my father for forgiveness, and told him that after he had been expelled from the library, he felt very unsettled and decided to return to the rabbi who had given the lecture.

The student told him what had happened in the library, and the rabbi responded that it would be best for the student to ask for my father’s forgiveness. The student then asked the rabbi why he needed to apologize – after all, he had simply quoted the rabbi.

The rabbi answered that presuming to understand why God does something is vastly different from wondering what can and should be learned from the event. If, for instance, we come across an individual who had not adhered to safety regulations, and had died in an accident as a result, we can infer that we need to drive safely. But we must not assume that this was the reason God had condemned that person to die.

These are two separate planes, like two parallel lines that never meet. This is true for the Holocaust, as it is true for any other event. We can choose what we learn from the event, but the reasons behind the event lie on an entirely separate plane, which we simply cannot fathom.

When we read about Nadav and Avihu, we can try to explain why they did what they did, but none of this can give us a deeper and candid explanation of why God allowed this event to occur. Ultimately, we cannot understand why these two sons were fated to die. And this is why Aaron was silent.

In this season of Holocaust Memorial Day, now is the time to listen, to hear and to learn. We do all of this out of humility, not as those who purport to know the ways of God, but rather as those who know how to remain silent. May we also know how to chart a path to goodliness and kindness that will ensure a better future for our people and the entire world, beginning with this silence.

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