Sh’mini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47) The Defeaning Sound of Silence

Long exposure shot near Dyrhólaey, Iceland. Photo by Claudio Büttler on Unsplash
Long exposure shot near Dyrhólaey, Iceland. Photo by Claudio Büttler on Unsplash

After about an hour flight, our helicopter dropped us off on the top of a mountain, on a glacier. The sky was a blue that defied description. The air was crisp. There was no sound. The silence was spiritual. Silence plays a role in this week’s portion. Perhaps the most famous aspect of the portion is the sudden death of Aaron’s sons. The cause of death in Torah is that they brought esh zarah: strange or alien fire. Aaron sees this and in seeing this horror, also hears the words of God through Moses “This is what God said when He said ‘through those near to me I show myself holy and gain glory before all people”, vayidom Aharon: Aaron was silent. (10:2,3) Was his silence as a result of witnessing the deaths or the immediate rebuke from God via Moses?

The theological implications of these verses will, no doubt, occupy many a Torah study this Shabbat. Silence in the face of sudden death. Silence in the face of Divine rebuke? And, once again the portion comes in a week where silence will be discussed as Holocaust Rememberence Day wasobserved Thursday the 8th. The silence of so many allowed for the death of so many. Think back, now on all of our lives. Were there times when we were silent and, in retrospect, now know that we should have spoken? And were there times when life confronted us in such ways that the only real response was silence, when words were not needed? Often we are confronted with a moment in time when the moment is so powerful, so overwhelming that, despite our desire to say something, the moment tells us that nothing needs to be said. It can be from comforting the mourner to being infused with the power of nature or the look of joy in a loved one’s eye.

Let me suggest this idea of silence is a pressing issue in world. We live in a society that has, as we sometimes teach, a “promiscuity of information” and yet a paucity of wisdom. There are times to speak out. We navigate now a world in which injustice, inequality and divisiveness seem to have taken on a new flourish. The silence of so many is sad and so very dangerous. These are not times to remain silent. There are too many “strange fires” burning around us now and, if we allow them to grow, who knows what or who will be sacrificed on an alter to false gods. Remember, as an old prayer warned us, to bec areful whatr we worship because we become what we worship.

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Richard F Address

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