Imagine the grand opening of a family business. Preceded by a week-long celebration accompanied by music, contests and an atmosphere of festive fun, the big day arrives with its ribbon-cutting ceremony. Yet just minutes after the new facility opens to business, tragedy strikes. Of the four brothers in the family, the two eldest disappear into the stock room to check on some inventory for a customer. Five minutes go by, ten, then fifteen. With considerable impatience at the inexplicable delay, one of the store’s employees goes back to the stock room only to discover two lifeless bodies. Was it foul play? A tragic accident? Had one or both foolishly or recklessly touched a live electrical wire? Was it an act of God?
In Parshat Shemini, the grand opening is not of a retail outlet or fast food restaurant, but the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary the Israelites used in the desert. And while not a family-owned business, given the hereditary character of the priesthood, it was a family-run operation, if you will. There is a moment of spiritual climax: Moses and Aaron enter Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting; upon their exit they bless the assembly and, “the Presence of the Eternal appeared to all the people.” Fire comes forth from God, consuming the sacrificial offering on the altar. When the Israelites witness this, “They shouted, and fell upon their faces” (Leviticus 9:23, 24). Yet a short time afterward, Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, attempt to bring an offering of their own before God with tragic results: “And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died before the Lord” (Leviticus 10:2).
There are few places in Scripture where a celebratory triumph is so quickly and thoroughly transformed into a shocking horror or tragic spectacle. What went wrong?
The sages offer myriad explanations of the “alien fire” brought by Aaron’s two elder sons that resulted in their demise. The alien fire is code for drunkenness, i.e., they had consumed too much “firewater” before entering the sanctuary, insists one rabbinic authority. No, it’s a metaphor for their unbridled ambition, speculates another source; Nadav and Avihu were jealous of the fanfare that their elders, Moses and Aaron, commanded. Yet a third text suggests that Aaron’s sons were faithless — they brought an unconsecrated source of fire to the altar because they didn’t believe God capable of igniting the sacrifice. “Wait, wait,” chimes in another rabbinic voice, “they died because they had too much faith; they tried to apprehend the inner essence of God’s soul-fire. Like a moth drawn into a flame, that which they most longed for killed them.” So there you have it: they deserved their fate or didn’t . . . they wanted too much from God or had too little faith in the Divine. Choose whichever interpretation you like best.
Yet the proliferation of explanations to the disturbing enigma of their deaths pales in significance when one encounters two simple words following the tragic fate of Nadav and Avihu: “And Aaron was silent.” Aaron who had just witnessed the death of his own children; Aaron who was called upon to serve the God that had executed his sons; Aaron who had just blessed the people at a moment of supreme spiritual meaning in his own life. Never before and never again does the Torah report the silence of an individual. We Jews gesticulate, we argue, we debate with each other, with ourselves, even with God. Abraham argues with God. Moses argues with God. The Berditchever Rebbe, a great Hasidic rabbi of the late 18th century, was known far and wide for his one-sided debates with God.
But Aaron is silent. Not a word, not a cry, not a sigh escape his lips.
In our world, we are uncomfortable with silence, the absence of words makes us uneasy. We are quiet when we’re not sure how to reach out or respond, and our awkwardness is palpable. Silence is a void to be filled as quickly as possible.
But Judaism would remind us that sometimes silence is more substantive than words. There are few biblical books more replete with powerful spiritual imagery than the 42 chapters of Job, but surely one of the most profound statements of the work may be found near the story’s beginning. Job, who suffers the loss of his wealth, his children and his health, is visited by three friends: “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights. None spoke a word to him for they saw how very great was his suffering” (Job 2:13).
As soon as Job’s companions begin to speak — and their words take up much of the next 36 chapters of the book — they promptly stick their foot into their mouth. Far from bringing their friend comfort, their platitudes and sermonizing cause Job more pain, if that were possible. From this scriptural source we derive the Jewish wisdom of never speaking to a mourner until she first speaks to us. Unless a person in grief is prepared to let us glimpse his pain, how can we possibly know how to respond appropriately? And if we can’t be bothered to wait until a mourner gives us permission to speak, then the condolence we extend isn’t really about the grieving person at all, but about our self-consciousness, our awkward need to break the silence, the need to say something, anything.
But in telling us about Aaron, the Torah reminds us that sometimes silence is itself a response; indeed, the only response possible. Tomorrow evening begins the observance of Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. At commemorations around the globe, the increasingly older and fewer survivors light candles, memorial prayers are chanted, audiences hear speakers and listen to Holocaust era poetry. As the years go by, it becomes harder and harder to plan new programs for Yom Ha-Shoah. The crowds grow sparser. We’ve already had that speaker; we’ve already done that theme. We offer thousands of words in tribute, sorrow, bewilderment and remembrance, but the words are hopelessly inadequate to the sacred burden they are asked to bear.
Among medieval Kabbalists, Jewish mystics, there was a practice known as Tzom Shtikah, a fast of silence, rather than a fast from eating. Such a fast would be in sharp contrast to Yom Kippur, when we pour out countless thousands of words printed on hundreds of pages of prayer books. In truth, neither traditional Jewish theology nor its accompanying liturgy can offer us guidelines as to how to make Yom Ha-Shoah meaningful. Given the magnitude of the Holocaust’s incomprehensible character, is there anything more significant to be offered than our silence — silence not as an absence of verbiage, but as a replacement for the spoken word. In our silence we might hear the silenced voices of the millions, the silence of a world that turned a deaf ear, even the silence of a God who, whether present or absent, was undeniably silent.
“And Aaron was silent”. Not because he acknowledged the justice of God’s decree against his children, and not because he was too angry for words; not because he didn’t know what to say, and not because it would have been too blasphemous to utter the words he might have otherwise said. And Aaron was silent . . . and in that moment, there were neither questions nor answers, yet nevertheless, the responsive presence of “a still small voice.”
Should you ever visit the north German city of Hamburg, you may wish to take a detour to the city’s outskirts. There you will find Neuengamme, a small and not particularly well-known concentration camp in which some 55,000 men, women and children died. Among these thousands, were twenty youngsters between the ages of 5 and 12, brought from Auschwitz for medical experiments conducted by a SS physican, Dr. Kurt Heissmeyer, who was bent on showing the world that tuberculosis was not an infectious disease, but rather one that only affected those of inferior racial stock. Less than two weeks before the surrender of Nazi Germany, these tortured children were executed to cover up the inhumanity of their treatment. If you ever make it to Neuengamme, you will see a beautiful rose garden planted in memory of the slain children. On the memorial plaque at the entrance, the following words are written: “When You Stand Here, Be Silent; When You Leave Here, Be Not Silent.”
On this Yom Hashoah, I urge you to find a few moments of silence in community. The silence of Yom Ha-Shoah is not about the silence that come from solitude. No, on Yom Ha-Shoah we are silent not because we don’t know what to say, but because there is nothing to say. And in that silence may we find the voice to say to ourselves, to our world, to those who continue to weather the weary indifference of silent humanity, and even to a silent God, “Never again.”