For several weeks we read of the preparation for the event of this week’s portion. The Mishkan has been built and priests consecrated. Now, in chapter 9, we read of the beginning of the sacrificial service with Aaron as High Priest. Aaron and Moses bless the people and God’s presence appears (9:22-24) There then appears one of the most intriguing stories in all of Torah. In chapter 10, Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Avihu, take it upon themselves to offer their own sacrifice. They had not been commanded to do so, They offered eish zarah a “strange” or “alien” fire. An offering that had not been ordained, Their punishment: death.
As you may imagine, there have been countless interpretations and commentaries on this passage. No doubt, when you are in synagogue this Shabbat, or examining the various Torah commentary sites, you will encounter many of these commentaries. Were they drunk? Were they overcome by rabid enthusiasm of the moment? Did they wish to emulate their dad? Is this a Torah message that tells us that if you do not obey the rules, you will perish? Is this a story that warns us against taking too much initiative or falling prey to zealousness? What also is striking, however, is what happens next. After the death, Moses tells Aaron that this act was a reminder that God has rules and regulations and that if you do not follow, there will be consequences. Aaron’s response to Moses’s counsel? Va’yidom Aharon: And Aaron was silent.
A popular commentary states that Aaron’s silence is that he accepted the Divine decree. But how realistic is that? His sons have just been killed by the very God that Aaron was ordained to serve. From what was a moment of great celebration and joy, he is plunged into utter sadness. He is silent. In the face of overwhelming tragedy, there were no words. Many of us have experienced moments when the only realistic response to a moment or event is silence. I recall a few instances when that phone call came to tell me of the death of someone close. Maybe some of you have received that same call and often, after that initial “Oh God”, comes our own silence. How many of us have been to a house of mourning or with a close friend or loved one suffering greatly and found ourselves with no words to speak. In those moments, we learn that often presence is more valuable than any word. Or, how many of us have witnessed a moment in life or nature that renders us speechless? Silence, at times, is our only response. To channel Ecclesiastes 3, there are times for speaking and then there is time when silence is the only meaningful response.
As we get older, I think that we come to value that silence more. So many of us have been conditioned to the fact that we need to “say something”. Yet, tradition understand that at many of these moments no words can express what we may be feeling and thus, silence is best.
Rabbi Richard F Address
Rabbi Richard F. Address, D.Min, is the Founder and Director of www.jewishsacredaging.com. Rabbi Address served for over three decades on staff of the Union for Reform Judaism; first as a Regional Director and then, beginning in 1997, as Founder and Director of the URJ’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns and served as a specialist and consultant for the North American Reform Movement in the areas of family related programming. Rabbi Address was ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1972 and began his rabbinic career in Los Angeles congregations. He also served as a part time rabbi for Beth Hillel in Carmel, NJ while regional director and, after his URJ tenure, served as senior rabbi of Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, NJ from 2011-2014.