Please enjoy a D’var Torah this week from Benjy Forester, Rosh Tikvah 2016. Benjy is graduating this May from Washington University in St. Louis with a degree in the Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology (PNP) Program (while also dabbling briefly in klal shprach Yiddish). Benjy was an inaugural Nachshon Fellow last spring while studying in Jerusalem at Hebrew University, and is a lifelong Ramahnik with stints at the Ramah Day Camp, Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, and Ramah Israel Seminar. This will be his fifth summer on staff. Reflections on Parashat Shemini by Benjy Forester
Parashat Shemini describes the painful and confusing narrative of the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. The priestly sons offer an unsolicited sacrifice to God. This alien/strange fire (esh zarah) offered to God seems not overtly malicious but clearly misguided, and it warrants the wrath of God in the form of instantaneous death. Beyond the speculation about the nature of the crime and punishment, a further mystery comes from their father Aaron’s reaction, which the text notes in one simple phrase: Vayidom Aharon; And Aaron was silent.
The shoresh (“root”) D-M-M found in Aaron’s silence appears in a famous prophetic story. Caught in a moment of desperation and zeal, Elijah (Kings I) sees a mighty wind, an earthquake, and a fire, but he does not find God in those natural demonstrations. Instead, Elijah finally hears a still (d’mama), small voice, and in it, he hears the word of God.
Rabbis Simon and Garfunkel offer their own take on the sound of silence, commenting, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls / And tenement halls / And whispered in the sounds of silence.” When direction seems most evident, we perhaps counterintuitively search in the void for guidance.
Through these examples, we learn of the power of silence, and the immense propensity for reflection, clarity, and emotion that emerge only when we not only clear our heads of noise, but also create a physical space of silence.
Caught in a moment of deep grief, Aaron’s silence roars a message of pain and vulnerability. Yet, tasked with his priestly duties that God reminds him about only verses later and without having time any formal grieving, Aaron uses his silence to spring him forward into his holy work. Likewise, frustrated with a crumbling moral world, Elijah finds clarity in the silence and returns to his prophetic work more focused and able.
The speed and bustle of camp provides ample opportunities for countless memories. Each hour of the day, from waking up until bedtime, situates us in meaningful activities with people we cherish in a place we learn to call home. Yet, eight weeks of action gets exhausting. Fortunately, the rhythm of camp includes intentional moments of carved out time and space for the silences that allow us to recharge, refocus, and reflect. When madrichim (“counselors”) check in each day with their campers during downtime or times of transition, the incredible power of the silence is felt. When chanichim (“campers”) sit on any of the scenic lookouts next to Lake Buckatabon and gaze out at the expanse of the Northwoods, they embrace the silence. The moments of Tefillah when chanichim and madrichim alike can get lost in the meditation of daily prayer welcomes in the powerful silence.
The greatest memories of camp often come at the loudest times. Hebrew musicals, sports competitions, the zimriyah (“music festival”), and rikudiah (“dance festival”) turn up the decibels and flood our camp with sounds of song, laughter, and cheers. Yet, those intense moments of great noise and enthusiasm are made possible only through the carved out times and spaces for reflective silence. Let us use this coming Shabbat as one such opportunity to consider all of the noise, both good and bad, from our last week, and give ourselves a moment to close our eyes and lips, and to open our ears to the sound of silence.