April 4, 2002
Silence and Rage
Parshat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)
In a parsha that features spectacular displays of sound and light, the most dramatic moment is actually the quietest one. In fact, it sometimes feels like the opening chapter's tumult and noise only serves to draw us even deeper into the second chapter's thunderclap of silence.
The parsha opens with the pomp and ceremony attending the formal inauguration of the tabernacle in the desert. We see Aaron ministering in the gleaming garments of the high priesthood. We see the Divine fire descend from heaven, signaling acceptance of the initial offerings, and we hear the people shout and exclaim in wonder. In a flash, though, celebration turns to horror. Two of Aaron's sons bring forth an unauthorized incense offering, prompting a second fire to tumble down from heaven, killing them on the spot. Moshe is the first to react to the sudden carnage, turning to his brother Aaron with the following somewhat enigmatic words: "Of this God spoke when He said, 'Through My close ones shall I be sanctified.'"
Aaron, on the other hand, says nothing. And the language of the text strongly suggests that Aaron's "nothing" is not merely an absence of response. It is a purposeful "nothing." Aaron makes a conscious decision to be silent. Silence is his rejoinder to Moshe, and his declarative statement before God.
What is the meaning of Aaron's silence? Some have suggested Aaron is indicating to Moshe that he regards his personal sorrow to be secondary to the needs of the nation. On this monumental day, the people need to see their high priest composed and undeterred in his devotional service. If he were to cry out, panic and fear would quickly spread throughout the camp. According to this interpretation, Aaron's silence is a deliberate act of suppression of self for the benefit of the many.
But the words that Aaron eventually does speak lead us to think differently. As Moshe had requested, Aaron continues with the service of the day even after the calamity. But at the end of the day, Moshe discovers that Aaron has not eaten the high priest's portion of the sin offering. Instead, Aaron had burned it in fire. When confronted by Moshe, Aaron finally breaks his silence. "Today my sons brought their offerings before God, and this is what has befallen me. Shall I eat the sin offering today? Would that be pleasing in the eyes of God?"
Aaron is a model for the subsequent development of Jewish tradition. On the day that a loved one has died, the surviving family members are exempt from the performance of mitzvot. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik has written that they are entitled to act out against God. Aaron's silence and Aaron's anger are codified into normative Jewish practice. As devoted children of God, who live by God's law and worship in His holy places, we are of right to express ourselves when we feel He has failed us.
Virtually every day we are as those who have lost a family member that day. We struggle as we both plead with God to save His people, and can't mistake the growing feeling of dismay at our God who seems to be sitting by silently as we are slaughtered. Aaron and his anguish are our constant companions.
I pray that by the time that you are reading these words, we will have begun to move from the anguish of Aaron to the exultation of national redemption that the Jews in Netanya were commemorating during a Passover seder. Next year in Jerusalem.