During the holiday of Pesach that we just completed, we repeatedly encountered the contrast between the joy of going from slavery to freedom and the trauma of that transition — a trauma that stayed with the Israelites through 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and beyond.
We praised God for forcing Pharaoh to release our people from bondage, and we removed 10 drops of wine from our cups to acknowledge the heavy toll that the 10 plagues took on the Egyptians. We sang with exultation the song that the Israelites sang at the shores of the Sea of Reeds, and we remembered, as the midrash teaches, that God silenced the angels who at that very moment wanted to join in song, admonishing them, “My creatures are drowning, and you want to sing?!” Again and again, we found our joy mixed with trauma and sorrow.
In this week’s Torah portion, we find the same pattern repeating itself yet again. The Israelites have finished building the Mishkan, the tabernacle in the wilderness, and the priests have been invested and prepared to offer sacrifices on the people’s behalf.
On the eighth day — the name of the portion, Shemini, means “eighth” — the priests offer sacrifices for the first time on the altar, and a fire comes from before God and consumes the offerings. Moses and Aaron bless the people, and they fall on their faces in awe and exultation. A new era of relationship between the people and God has begun successfully.
But on that same day, tragedy strikes. Nadav and Avihu, two of Aaron’s sons, decide to make their own offering to God beyond what they have been commanded. Were they zealous, overcome by their desire to be close to God? Were they arrogant, hoping to supplant their elders with their own offering? Were they inexperienced, perhaps even intoxicated, blundering into a mistake?
Generations of commentators have debated their motivations, but it is clear what happens next. Fire consumes both of them. A day of rejoicing becomes a day of shock and sorrow.
Immediately, the Torah’s attention is focused on the figure of Aaron, the High Priest. He stands torn. He is the ritual leader of this new people, bound to teach them how to worship God in this brand new system of sacrifice. He is a teacher, shocked by the missteps of his pupils in their first acts as priests. And he is a father, traumatized by the sudden deaths of his two sons. What will he do? What will he say? How will he react to all that has happened?
The Torah answers: “Va-yidom Aharon” — “Aaron was silent.” Judaism is a tradition that values words. We revere the Torah, the Bible, the Mishnah and Talmud — full of the words that our ancient ancestors used to respond to the vicissitudes and questions of life. Thousands of words of prayer fill the pages of our prayerbooks, as through the ages our people have tried to find just the right combination of words to express our praise, our gratitude, our puzzlement and our sorrow. So we might expect Aaron to respond with words, words of challenge or anger or despair. Instead — “Aaron was silent.”
Here the Torah teaches that we don’t always have words to respond to all that life brings us. Whether we face trauma or despair or joy or exultation, words sometimes fail us. At those times, we, like Aaron, can embrace the blessing of silence and, we pray, find comfort and peace.
Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as the rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org .