THE BEGINNING OF MY PARASHAH is different to the parshiyot that have preceded it. For the past weeks we have read about the instructions for the building and dedication of the Mishkan, the portable Temple that was the holy centre of the Israelites during their journey in the desert. My portion, called Shemini, which means “eighth”, begins with the eighth and last day of the dedication of the Mishkan as well as the ordination of Aaron and his family as priests. It is different because instead of giving instruction after instruction, it is actually about the carrying out of those instructions. The second half of my parshah, which we read earlier, describes the laws of kashrut and introduces a Jewish awareness of what we eat and what we don’t.
But getting back to the first half, after eight days of preparations, Moses and Aaron and his sons are carrying out the offerings and sacrifices to dedicate the sanctuary. At the climax of the ceremony, with all the camp of the Israelites gathered around, G-d’s holy fire comes down and consumes the offerings in front of their eyes, and G-d’s presence appears! And at that moment, as everything was going super well, Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring incense in a pan, but it was not one of the commanded offerings so G-d zapped them for not keeping to schedule at such a holy and powerful function. They died on the spot which kind of ruined the moment.
So, what are the views of the leaders for this seemingly cruel and unfair killing? Moses speaks first:
“This is what the Eternal meant by saying: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.”
And what was Aaron’s response? Well, how would you respond in such as situation when your two oldest sons have just been burnt to a crisp? And depending on which commentary you read, Moses’s wise words weren’t particularly comforting either.
So what did Aaron do? The text says “Vayidom Aharon”, and Aaron was silent. This is the only time that the Torah tells us that someone was silent.
So what did his silence mean? When talking about it with Rabbi Paul and my parents, we wrote down all the different types of silences that we could think of and circled the ones that we thought were possible explanations.
I would like to share with you four possible examples:
First, there was the silence that follows a death. In the aftermath of the death of a loved one, there will be a long period where nothing will be said as everyone remembers the person or people that died. Mourners need time to process the fact that they will never again talk to the deceased person. A good example of this is a Shiva house or a ceremony for Yom HaShoah or Yom HaZikaron.
A second possibility could be the silence of shock or surprise. The expression “speechless” fits perfectly to the state of Aaron after watching his sons’ death happen right there before his eyes. He was quite literally at “a loss for words”.
A third could be the silence of thoughtfulness. Silence helps people think. It’s like the silent Amidah when you have a chance to talk one-on-one with Hashem.
I associate a thoughtful silence with a poem that my dad taught me when I was little.
“A wise old owl lived in an oak
The more he saw the less he spoke
The less he spoke the more he heard.
Why can't we all be like that wise old bird?”
Maybe Aaron’s silence was him trying to understand what had happened.
The final interpretation we thought of was silent protest. This is a picture of Tank Man, the nickname of an unidentified man who stood in front of a column of tanks on June 5, 1989, the morning after the Chinese military had suppressed the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 by force. As the lead tank maneuvered to pass by the man, he repeatedly shifted his position in order to obstruct the tank's attempted path around him. The incident was filmed and seen worldwide.
Silence can be more powerful than violence. Maybe the silence was Aaron’s protest against the death of his sons.
Whichever one of these four interpretations you might think is the right one, what I want to stress is that sometimes silence is for a good reason and should be acceptable. Sometimes silence is actually better than speaking – like the French composer, Claude Debussy said, “The most powerful part of my music is the pauses between the notes”.
As today is my bar mitzvah and the time that I take responsibility for the mitzvot, I understand that there are mitzvot that require action – like putting on tzitzit, or blowing the shofar or keeping Shabbat. But there are also mitzvoth that are not actions, that in fact actually require no action, such as not embarrassing someone in public, not coveting thy neighbour’s cellphone, or as my parshah reminds us, no eating of fish with no fins and scales. As I become an adult I pray for the wisdom to know when to act and when to not act, when to speak and when to be silent.