Parashat Shmini: The sound of silence

The silence in the face of inexplicable tragedy has reverberated throughout the generations as parents silently weep at the graves of their children.

crying woman battered 88 (photo credit: )
crying woman battered 88
(photo credit: )
A sea can be filled with the ink used by commentators attempting to explain - and even justify - the premature death of these two young priests on the final day of festivities for the consecration of the Sanctuary. Was it because they had brought "strange fire" (esh zara) which they had not been commanded to bring (Leviticus 10:1), an extra sacrifice, which has the echo of "strange service" (avoda zara - idolatry) or even worse, a child-sacrifice to Molech (which was brought by idolaters with fire)? Was it because they had entered the Sanctuary while drunk, as insinuated by the immediately following prohibition: "Wine and mead you shall not drink, neither you nor your children with you, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, so that you will not die..." (Lev. 10:8, 9)? Was it because they were jealous of Moses and Aaron, and impatient to gain leadership over the nation (Midrash Tanhuma, ad loc)? Or was it because they were more righteous and pure than anyone else - even Moses - and were therefore chosen to be the most sanctified sacrifice for the dedication of the Sanctuary (Vayikra Raba 12, 2 and Rashi on Lev. 10:3)? Whatever explanation may be offered, none would seem to justify such a tragedy, and the suffering of an innocent Aaron at the climax of his triumphant week as the high priest of the Sanctuary. But if the Bible doesn't present us with a satisfactory reason, it does provide us with a dignified response: "Vayidom Aharon," and Aaron remained silent. This regal silence in the face of inexplicable tragedy and possibly even unfairly demanded sacrifice has reverberated throughout the generations as parents silently weep at the graves of their children. I have previously recorded the lesson I learned from the Klauzemberger-Zanzer Rebbe regarding Aaron's silence. I was present, as a very young boy, at the first Sabbath circumcision of the Klauzemberger Hassidim in the temporary home they made for themselves in Brooklyn, New York - their way station between the European destruction and the rebirth of their community in Netanya. The Rebbe rose to bless and give a name to the newly circumcised child, intoning the time-honored verse: "Then I passed and I saw that you were rooted in your blood, and I say to you, 'By your blood shall you live'" (Ezekiel 16:6). At the conclusion of his blessing, the Rebbe commented: "I always understood these words from the prophet Ezekiel, 'be'damayich hayi,' 'by your blood shall you live', to mean that because of the sacrifices the Jews have been forced to make for our God and our faith we merit the covenantal gift of eternal life. But now that we have suffered the unspeakable tragedies of the European conflagration, it seems to me that Ezekiel's damayich comes not from the Hebrew dam, blood, but rather from the Hebrew dom, silence, as in vayidom Aharon. It is because we held back from battering the gates of heaven with our cries, because we swallowed our sobs and continued to pray and learn and build and plant, because we utilized our energies not to weep over our past losses but rather to recreate our communities, our synagogues and our study-houses here in America and please God soon in Israel, that we continue to live and even to flourish..." But it took an experience in Efrat some 54 years later to teach me how truly apt the Rebbe's interpretation was. Mordechai and Anne Goodman, beloved congregants and faithful friends, lost their beloved son Yosef, a paratrooper in the Maglan unit. I had to find Mordechai to break the horrible news - one of the most difficult tasks I have ever done. That evening an army representative came to give the family the details of how Yosef met his death - an incredible account of bravery and selflessness. Mordechai simply couldn't bring himself to stay and listen. I followed him up to his bedroom, hugged him and we sat in silence. After a while, when I got up to leave, Mordechai walked me to his bedroom door. "Rabbi," he said, "when you give the eulogy tomorrow, just don't say 'that is the price for aliya.' It's not the price we pay; it's the job of aliya..." I didn't understand, and mulled over his words all that night. And then I realized that Aaron did not merely remain silent; "they [Aaron and his remaining sons] did not leave the door of the Tent of Meeting" (Lev. 10:7), they remained in the Sanctuary, they continued to lead the services. And so I understood Mordechai. To say that such a sacrifice is the price for aliya would be inappropriate; after all, one can think that the price is too high and live where there is less danger. A God-given task has to be concluded, even if danger is an integral part of it. And if you are really dedicated, you might even see it as a privilege, despite the risks. For the past 2,000 years we couldn't do this job. We didn't have the ability to fight back or train for future battles as Yosef did. A year later, shortly before Remembrance Day, I learned that my interpretation of Mordechai's words was correct. He and Anne came to see me with a difficult question. "Yehuda [their next son in line] is entering the IDF. He wants to enter Maglan, Yosef's unit. It requires our signature, and we don't want to sign. But he very much wants to go..." I took a deep breath, and responded that we cannot make moral decision for our children; we must let them make their own decisions, even if it causes us pain. They both wept and left my house. I ran after them. "I believe in what I told you," I said. "But I want you to know that if I had to decide whether or not to sign the permission document for my own son, I cannot tell you what I would do." After the Remembrance Day event, Mordechai escorted me to his home; there was a pizza and ice cream "party," with all of Maglan welcoming Yehuda into their unit. "You're a better man than I, Gunga Din," I told Mordechai. "Our children are better than both of us," he answered. With such parents and such children, we in Israel will not only survive, we will prevail! The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.