This day on the Jewish calendar was momentous and writ large: Rosh Chodesh Nissan. The new month of Nissan had arrived, and with it came the dedication of God's Tabernacle. Though housing a physical structure, the Tabernacle was meant to be a focal point for engaging with a metaphysical yet profoundly felt Divine Presence.
Its official inauguration was cause for great excitement. There had been a prior seven-day process where no less an august personage than Moses himself built and erected this Tabernacle. And now, Vayehi bayom hash'mini — "on the eighth day," its official consecration was in the offing.
But something happened — something tragic and traumatic that brought a pall and darkness to the day. The two sons of Aaron the High Priest, Nadav and Avihu, enter this sanctuary of God with what the Torah describes as an eish zara, a "strange fire." They die in an excruciating way. It was new in the history of the world; they are immolated. They die in a literal holocaust — consumed by flames. Imagine the suffering of their father, Aaron. Imagine the shock and incomprehension of the people Israel.
We read and reflect upon this tragic event this Shabbat. Vayehi bayom hash'mini — "and on our contemporary eighth day" — the day after this Shabbat, we, too, engage with a day that is momentous on the Jewish calendar.
It is Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, in which not just two of our brothers went up in flames, but 6 million brothers and sisters tragically and incomprehensibly did. Parenthetically, I am struck that an "eighth day" implies a prior seven days. In Hebrew, the word for seven is shiva.
It is the response of their father Aaron, and of their uncle Moses, that is unquestionably profound. However tentatively we may claim to understand it, perhaps it can help us fashion a worldview worthy of our attention.Though the Torah is implicit as to the sins of Nadav and Avihu, the Torah is explicit with respect to Aaron's response. Vayidom Aharon, "Aaron was silent." Was he silent because of grief? Was he silent because of acquiescence and resignation to the will of God?
And Moses, how does he initially respond? Yes, you have suffered an unspeakable loss. But you are Aaron, the High Priest, and you need to continue to serve God and the Jewish people, especially on this day. And Aaron's response to his brother? I know that you are right, but I simply can't do it — at least, not today. And Moses' final response: Vayishma, "he heard" and accepted this. Now, Moses was silent.
A Sacred Silence
These two silences coalesce into a sacred silence. Faith does not mean that one's feelings of grief are dulled or deadened — isn't this what Aaron was teaching? Nor does having faith render us impervious or invulnerable to tragedy — isn't this what Moses was teaching?
But faith means to live with the uncertainty of life, even as we stubbornly continue to try to build the respective mishkans of meaning and Tabernacles of transcendence in this life. And with this, Aaron agreed with his brother. He mourned, but did not let the loss destroy him as a person or defeat him as a Jew. He remains Aaron, the High Priest.
We, too, have a contemporary Vayehi bayom hash'mini. Let's remind ourselves of the real name of Yom Hashoah. In 1951, the 27th of Nissan was adopted by the Israeli Knesset on behalf of the entire Jewish people — as Yom Hashoah V'ha Gevura. And what a difference a word makes.
This day was consecrated as Memorial Day for the Holocaust and for Acts of Courage. It was linked to the historic Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Rather than focus on destruction alone, the Jewish calendar — and our collective Jewish consciousness — would have us focus on death and rebirth. Aaron and Moses merge. We as a people sit shivah for those who perished in the Shoah. But Vayehi bayom hash'mini … "there's always the eighth day."