Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47) What Can We Hear in Silence?

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A curious portion awaits us the Shabbat. We begin with the detailed instructions for a public ceremony to consecrate the priesthood. There is an elaborate rite with sacrifices/offerings and the elevation of Aaron. This elaborate ritual is tarnished quickly by Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, who bring “strange fire” to sacrifice and, as a result are killed. There is a very powerful and, in many ways, disturbing passage that follows these deaths as Aaron hears of the death of his sons and is silent. The story is found in Leviticus 10: 1-11.
For years commentators have struggled with this story. What does esh zarah really mean? Strange fire? Alien fire? Was the punishment equal to the alleged crime? But the silence! I ask you to think on this idea for the Shabbat. Silence. There are many ideas associated with silence. As we get older, some seek a quieter, more contemplative life, a life that shuts out the “noise” of the outside world. We try this when we meditate.
Was Aaron so overwhelmed by the news that he could not speak? Surely some of us have been in that situation when we receive news that was unexpected, and words fail us. Is this story another one of the Bible’s reminders of the need for rules and regulations, after all, there was a right way and time to offer sacrifices. Did Nadav and Abihu violate those rules? Was it another attempt by brothers/sons to seek power and influence over their father? Was it so overwhelming that Aaron just surrendered to the power of this God to whom they just dedicated their lives?
How do we respond to silence? What can it mean? Can it mean acceptance? Can silence really be a way of accommodating uncomfortable situations? Can remaining silent in the face of evil really be a way of allowing that evil to proceed? Or can silence be a way of being polite, as many of our parents told us that “if you cannot say something nice about someone, stay silent”. Or, as so many clergy have experienced, sometimes in moments of crises, silence is the best response, presence is at times better than words, as one’s presence often conveys more comfort and support than any words can.
This Shabbat, this portion seems to be inviting us to take some time and reflect on silence, its power and meaning in our lives.
Shabbat shalom
Rabbi Richard F Address

1 Comment

  1. As the Torah was written before vowels came into use in Hebrew, sometimes the proper conjugation of a verb is ambiguous. This may be one of those cases. וידם perhaps can be in the passive tense, that is “and Aaron was constrained” (or possibly stunned into silence) which would certainly make more sense and is less incredulous to us than the simple tense “Aaron was silent”.

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