Mourners at the funeral of the Kielce pogrom victims, July 1946. (US Holocaust Memorial Museum)

The Deepest Response of Love

Why Aaron was silent in the wake of his sons' death.

Commentary on Parashat Shmini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47; Exodus 12:1-20

All Israel is a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6). Some among them are priests of priests. At the top of the priestly pyramid stands Aaron, the kohein gadol (high priest). The kohein gadol is vested with considerable power and responsibility. Though everything is new–and no models exist for him to follow–Aaron carries out his role with great competency and dignity as he offers up the first sacrifices to God.

In Parashat Shmini, we find ourselves with Aaron and his family at an exhilarating moment. It is the climactic eighth day of dedication of the Tabernacle.

Exultant and joyful, Aaron and his sons bless the people–and the glory of God appears before all. A fire of heavenly origin consumes the sacrifices in their entirety; the people fall on their faces in awe and love of God. Aaron’s joy must surely be overflowing.

Suddenly, the scene turns into heartbreak. Though not commanded to do so, Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s elder sons, put incense into pans and bring it as an offering. Instantly, a fire of God leaps out and consumes them. Aaron is devastated. These two sons were outstanding young men: they were deemed worthy of ascending Mt. Sinai in a most prestigious order—after Moses and Aaron, and before the 70 elders—and worthy of participating in the festive meal at which God’s face was shown (Exodus 24:1, 9-11).

Crime and Punishment?

What could have happened? We struggle to understand. Was this a punishment from God, or a random accident? What crime could they have committed that was so heinous as to warrant death by flash fire? Perhaps they were acting out of enthusiasm and desire to serve. Perhaps they were overcome simply by the pure joy of being in the presence of God-and wished only to increase awe in the hearts of the people. And even if they were guilty of not following God’s word to the last, did not their father Aaron have credit in the storehouse of good deeds? Was there not some milder punishment that could have been meted out on the scale, such as that meted out to other miscreants in the Torah?

Yet despite the fact that they performed everything else properly and created a glorious Tabernacle celebration, despite their father’s merit or their own, they are swiftly cut down.

When I was growing up, my high school Torah teacher, Mar Yerushalmi, communicated unequivocally to his students that Nadab and Abihu were punished for the grave sin of eating in the place where they should not have. Whenever a student would be caught chewing gum in class as we studied Torah with Rashi’s commentary, Yerushalmi would remind her of Nadab and Abihu.

On the one hand, this devout teacher was implying that the sons were guilty and deserved what they got; on the other, likening their crime to a teenager’s act of chewing gum in the wrong setting was his way of subtly suggesting to a class of impressionable teenagers that he, too, felt the punishment did not fit the crime.

The Torah narrative teaches us that Moses struggles with the same issue, trying to find an explanation. He wants to offer consolation to his beloved brother and closest friend, yet he takes care not to betray his responsibility as the leader who must teach the people to follow God’s law. “This is what Adonai meant by saying, ‘Through those near to Me I show Myself holy'” (10:3). Moses’ delicate message to the people and his only consolation to Aaron is that this was not a random act but a sentence decreed on those closest to God, who are thus held to a higher standard.

Aaron’s Stoicism

What was Aaron’s response? Two simple words: vayidom Aharon (“And Aaron was silent”). The word vayidom means more than he kept quiet–vayishtok. Aaron responded with a profound, shattering silence, a stunning silence, a shocked silence. He does not justify the cruel decree by blaming his sons and accepting their fate as punishment for their sins. Yet, neither does he revolt or protest God’s action. Total silence.

Aaron’s response is the profoundest human and religious response to the reality that there are times when good people die unjustly or are consumed in tragedies that seem to be arbitrary, shocking, without justification, and with nothing to ameliorate the pain and loss of those who love them.

A Personal Lesson in Silence

A few years ago, in 2002, my beloved son JJ, age 36, was killed while riding a bicycle in Israel. He had arrived the night before to celebrate the holidays with the whole family and was bicycling with his brother to visit his sister in Zichron Yaakov, when a young driver ran a yellow light with great speed and took JJ’s life in an instant. JJ loved Israel, family, Judaism, athletics, God, nature and life; and he was celebrating all of these loves when his life was snuffed out.

When my husband and I sat shiva, most people came with no forethought agenda or explanation, though a few–out of good intention and compassion– tried to justify God or soften the loss by giving it some meaning. “He was so good that God needed him by His side” was one such attempt, to which on one occasion — unable to hold back my words — I responded, “But we on Earth need him more!” Most people understood at the deepest level that there was nothing that could justify, nothing that could offset the pain or soften the blow, and they wisely remained silent. And we ourselves were silent, as there were no words we could speak that would make any sense of it.

At times, devout members of religions that affirm an afterlife are tempted to say that the deceased is “in a better place — living a better life in a better world”; or they are tempted to suggest that there must be some sin or error or judgment that has brought this fate upon the victim. Such persons cannot tolerate the thought that what has happened is unjustified, for it violates their deepest principles about good and evil, reward and punishment. They need somehow to internally rationalize and justify a reality in order to bring the world back to proper equilibrium.

The Jewish laws of bereavement, so exquisitely tuned to the needs of the mourners, stipulate that the shiva visitor should not speak until the mourner speaks. I had always thought that the point of that precept was to ensure that the conversation would flow to the place the mourner needs it to reach. But I now understand that the halacha (Jewish law) enjoining the comforting visitor to hold back in silence serves a different function: To caution against offering a rationale for the decree of death. The deeper human religious response is to be silent, to live with the contradiction, and to affirm that we need not force meaning into tragedy. Sometimes, the deepest response of love is to be silent.

Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

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