The Power of Silence: Reflections on Parashat Shemini
by Adina Allen, Assistant Director
The number seven is usually thought of as the holiest number in Judaism. There are seven days of creation and Shabbat is the seventh and holiest day. But the number eight is also an important number, particularly in Jewish mysticism. If seven represents the days of creation, the eighth (shemini) day represents the rest of our life. But what if the rest of our life is cut short? How do we and those around us respond?
In the third aliyah of Parashat Shemini, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring fire pans and make a sacrifice that no one instructed them to make. Immediately after the fire consumed their sacrifice, God consumed Nadav and Avihu with fire. There are many interpretations for their sudden death, some of which view Aaron’s sons in a positive light and some that focus on sin and error. One interesting interpretation looks to the verse that follows the death of Nadav and Avihu, when Moses speaks to Aaron about holiness. Perhaps the brothers were so holy and so inspired that they got too close to God and were consumed, for no one can come that close to God’s presence and live.
Rabbi Shai Held looks closely at the different responses of Aaron and Moses to this event. When someone dies, it seems logical for leaders to offer words of condolence and grief to the relatives of that person. After the death of Nadav and Avihu, Moses quickly responds by saying “This is what the Lord meant when He said: Through those near to Me, I will be sanctified; and before all the people I will be glorified.” Moses’ response explains why such an act occurred before offering any words of consolation. And as we read immediately after: Aaron remains silent.
There are a few explanations for Aaron’s silence. Perhaps Aaron agreed with Moses and understood that this is what happens when people get too close to God, and his silence indicates that acceptance. The words used for Aaron’s silence are וידום אהרון “vayidom Aharon.” An explanation by Rabbi Eliezer Lipman Lichtenstein distinguishes the use of the verb “ד.מ.מ” instead of the one we’d normally expect to read: “.ש.ק.ת” (as in sheket b’vakashah! “Quiet please!”). The verb used, דממה / “d’mama”, he argues, indicates internal peace and acceptance, instead of an outward expression of grief like tears and sobbing. This silence, Lichtenstein writes, highlights Aaron’s internal acceptance of God’s decree.
However, there is actually another meaning to the word “vayidom.” Bible scholar Baruch Levine explains that it can also mean “to mourn.” Moses, trying to comfort his older brother, responds with a reason for the death. Aaron responds in the complete opposite way, rejecting this theological explanation, wishing instead only for comfort and the opportunity to mourn. But Moses prohibits Aaron from that human necessity, instead explaining that the Israelites will mourn on the family’s behalf. Aaron is seeking comfort and presence in that moment, and a possible explanation for his suffering does not provide the same comfort. As humans, we often respond in the style of Moses, and offer an explanation or reason as to why an event happened. The narrative in this week’s parashah reminds us that what is more reassuring in these moments is silence and the opportunity to simply feel our feelings.
This week, I observed the power of silence on Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day – at Kibbutz Shefayim, where I spent the week at our annual Shlichim (Israeli staff) Training Seminar. Instead of the loud music, live singing, and raucous camp feeling, the shlichim joined us at Kibbutz Shefayim on Wednesday and as the sun set we transitioned into a much more somber tone. Thursday morning at 10:00 AM we stood still and together silently remembered the lives of those lost in the Holocaust. All across Israel, people stood in silence at the same time. In those two minutes, the silence was powerful. We had no words in those moments to commemorate the horrors of the Holocaust, but the silence expressed more than we could possibly say to each other. The silence brought us together, and the shared experience helped to build our community. As we welcome these shlichim to our vibrant camp community in the summer with laughter and joy, we serve as a living reminder that silence is only one answer, and the fun and excitement and Jewish living we see in Conover is another.
We live in a busy, loud, ever-changing world. It is important to remember that sometimes we can experience and understand more in silence than we can when speaking. As we enter this Shabbat and we read about Aaron’s silence, may we listen to the space between words to find strength and connection to one another.