Leviticus 10 is one of the more challenging chapters of Torah. Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu each offer a sacrifice to God. It is a sacrifice of “eish zara”, strange or alien fire. Their sacrifice was not in accordance, says tradition, with prescribed order and ritual. Their punishment was swift: they were consumed. “And the fire came forth from God and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of God. Then Moses said to Aaron: “This is what God meant when God said Through those near to me I will show myself holy, and assert My authority before all the people. And Aaron was silent.” (Leviticus 10: 2,3).
When you teach this scene to people it usually brings up a variety of emotions. In our non legalistic Jewish world, there is some anger against this God who sought to punish Aaron’s two boys for what was a mistake in ritual practice. Yes, rituals must be done correctly. But! Did the punishment fit the crime, and was it a “crime”? And what about that last phrase; “and Aaron was silent”? Was he silent in response to Moses’s attempt at an explanation? Or was he silent, heart sick and in shock at the news of the death of his two sons?
Rabbis for generations, along with Bible scholars, have debated this portion and this story. There is something about it that bothers us in our modern sensitive era. This story, however, is not unfamiliar to many of us. Not unfamiliar in the sense that many of our generation have been witness to great family tragedy; often the death of a spouse or even a child. And in that moment, we , like Aaron are often silent. For what is there to say? Indeed, the tradition supports the value of silence. Midrash tells us that it is tradition, when entering a “shiva” house that we, the visitor wait until the mourner speaks. We are told as well, that in those moments when the death is raw and present–as in a “shiva” house, we do not enter into theological discussion. Indeed, silence is the best response. Long ago our sages understood that in those circumstances, it is presence that counts more than pronouncements. A hug, a kiss, your being there to share, to hold and to take away in some measure, the grief.
There are many interpretations of this passage. The heart of a father has been broken. In that moment, he is not concerned with proper ritual or its violation, he is just overwhelmed. A broken heart in the face of such tragedy commands that silence. Later it will be time for reasons. In that moment, that pain demands only the silent sound of community.
Rabbi Richard F Address, D.Min