Sound of silence

When the worst personal disaster strikes, Aaron is silent. What are we to make of this?

Moses_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
What should have been a day for joy and celebration turned quickly into a horrific tragedy (Leviticus 10). After six months in which the nation of Israel was involved in the intricacies of fashioning the Tabernacle, a week of festivities marked its dedication. On the eighth day, Aaron and the nation offer several sacrifices, and the “glory of God appears” (ibid. 9:23). The entire journey of the Exodus had been leading up to this moment. But then “the sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, brought an alien fire.” The first priests of the Jewish nation were burned in front of their father.
Nothing can prepare a father for witnessing the death of his sons.
Born as a slave in Egypt, Aaron eventually became the Jewish people’s highest religious authority.
There could be no prouder moment for Aaron than culminating the Tabernacle inaugural ceremony with his sons standing beside him in service to the nation. When the worst personal disaster strikes – Aaron is silent (ibid. 10:3).
What are we to make of his reaction? Does his silence indicate acceptance? Crippling grief? Controlled anger? Pure shock? In biblical episodes we usually do not have access to the characters’ inner lives. All we have is the text, and from there we can build our notions. “Silence” in this scenario demands interpretation on the part of the reader.
The Hebrew word for Aaron’s silence is vayidom. The root word is dom, which appears in Ezekiel 24:17 – “Be silent in mourning the dead.” The nation of Israel wishes to mourn the tragedy about to befall them, but God commands them to refrain from any expression of public mourning.
Taking this word cue and applying it to Aaron’s behavior, we can say that he wishes to mourn but refrains, out of respect for God and the collective community.
Vayidom also appears when Joshua is conquering the south of Israel (10:13): “The sun stood still.”
Applying this to Aaron’s behavior, we can deduce that he was in a state of paralysis by the sheer magnitude of what just happened. Mourning simply does not come into play.
Aaron’s silence can also be compared to (Psalms 39:3) “I was dumb with silence” (dumiya), I held my peace, had no comfort, and my pain was stirred up,” as well as to (Lamentations 2:10) “The elders of the daughter of Zion sit upon the ground and keep silence (yidmu – the root word is dom); they have cast up dust upon their heads; they have girded themselves with sackcloth; the virgins of Jerusalem bow down their heads to the ground.” The tragedy was so great, it was impossible for Aaron to find the words to express his grief.
It is possible to deduce that Aaron’s reaction was simply a prayer to the Almighty, as in (Psalms 65:2) “To You, silence (dumiya) is praise,” and as in (ibid. 62:2) “For God alone my soul waits silently (dumiya), from Him comes my salvation.”
This was no ordinary prayer but a meditative one, connecting the human voice with God’s. In 1 Kings 19:12 it says: “God was not in the fire; and after the fire, a still (d’mama, from the root word dom) small voice” – implying that God can be found in that secretive communication known as revelation. It is a silence with a sound. When God speaks, man is silent. Aaron’s silence seems to be a response to some Divine statement; what emerged was an inaudible word of praise.
There is no clear-cut answer to what exactly was going on in Aaron’s mind. From the Hebrew it is possible to deduce two opposite behavioral extremes.
According to Jewish tradition, when David wrote the psalm for the dedication of the House (Psalm 30), he recalled the tragedy of Aaron and his sons. David prayed that when his son, Solomon, would build the Temple, tragedy would not repeat itself: “That [my] whole being might sing hymns to You and not fall silent (yidom).” Even in the midst of pain and sadness, the psalmist continued to sing God’s praises unceasingly.
There are times when tragedy occurs in our lives. It is in these moments that we need to find that prayerful silence and continue to sanctify God’s name in our lives.