The People and the Book: Aaron’s silence

Sometimes God disappoints us and we may respond with a silence that alternately expresses anger, grief and even awe.

Drawing by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Drawing by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
THE SHEMINI Torah portion opens with a great tragedy that occurs on the very day that the Israelites are to celebrate the dedication of the tabernacle that will accompany the people throughout the rest of their sojourn in the desert.
Nadav and Avihu, newly anointed into the priesthood, improvise slightly in their priestly duties by taking their fire pans to offer incense before God. The Torah describes theirs as “an alien fire, which [the Lord] had not enjoined upon them. And the fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord.”
While Nadav and Avihu’s deaths are shocking and seemingly unjust, their deaths also illuminate the mysteries and ambiguities inherent in the Israelites’ nascent relationship with God.
To me, the most profound moment in that fledgling relationship is Aaron’s response to the deaths of his sons: “And Aaron was silent.”
Aaron’s silence opens up a vast landscape of possible interpretations.
The most obvious one is that Aaron was in shock. One moment he is at the height of his powers as a priest, passing along his divine calling to his sons. In the next moment he is in deep despair.
Another explanation for Aaron’s silence could also be rooted in anger. “Silence,” playwright George Bernard Shaw once noted, “is the most perfect expression of scorn.” One Midrash suggests that Aaron remained silent in order not to express publicly his anger toward God.
Perhaps Aaron’s silence was ultimately a rejoinder to Moses’ teaching, “This is what the Lord meant when he said: ‘Through those near to me I show myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.’” The most powerful way Aaron knew to disagree with Moses as God’s representative was to avoid any dialogue, to draw a boundary indicating that any discussion of the death of his sons was off limits. By the same token, Aaron’s silence might have also been a tacit acceptance of God’s decree. As grief-stricken as Aaron was, he deferred to God in His greater wisdom.
I’d like to propose that Aaron’s silence was a precursor to the Mourner’s Kaddish. The prayer has always been curious to me for the way it does not mention a single word about death or grief. It is essentially a declaration of love to God at a time when the mourner is most upset with God. It also serves as an expansion of Moses’ teaching to Aaron – an example when theology is seemingly irrelevant and the routine of following the commandments is a placeholder until our feelings for God return.
When I first said the Kaddish for my father, I began my year of mourning dismayed at God. Although my father had been ill for many years, I was still shocked that I would never see him again, never read to him again, never hold his hand again. I did not want to let him go. Aaron’s grief-soaked silence may have been his refusal to believe his sons were dead.
That inability to let go is illustrated in the Talmudic account about the dying Rabbi Judah the Prince, the compiler of the Mishna, whose students prevented his soul from departing to heaven by praying for their teacher to live.
But there was fierce competition from the angels who prayed for the rabbi’s earthly existence to come to an end.
Judah’s maid took matters into her own hands and shouted from the rooftop, “May the prayers of mortals overwhelm the prayers of the angels.” But when she witnessed Judah’s suffering she changed her prayer to: “May the prayers of the angels overwhelm the prayers of the mortals.”
Her prayer was not powerful enough to override those of the rabbi’s students, so she distracted them by smashing a pitcher. Momentarily startled, the students stopped praying long enough so that Judah’s soul escaped from his tortured body. To further link this Midrash with Nadav and Avihu’s deaths, elsewhere in the Talmud it is asserted the souls of Aaron’s sons were burned, but their bodies were left intact – an example of how memory works in tandem with grief when calling up loved ones in the mind’s eye.
Rabbi Eliezer Diamond, a professor of Talmud at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, points to the practice of omitting a particular paragraph from the full Kaddish as a stand-in for Aaron’s silence. The paragraph states: “May all the prayers and pleas of the people of Israel find acceptance before their father in heaven.”
Diamond posits, “This omission is a declaration of disengagement.
Yes, God, I will continue to pray to you and serve you, but I cannot be expected at this moment, when you have taken the one I love, to declare that you are the one who hears prayers. My prayer, at least, has gone unanswered. In this moment of mourning, I will not pretend otherwise.”
Sometimes God disappoints us. And like Aaron, sometimes our only reaction is to respond with a silence that alternately expresses anger, grief and even awe.
Judy Bolton-Fasman writes about arts and culture for various publications and has completed a memoir entitled ‘The Ninety Day Wonder.’