We’ve reached the part of the Torah that describes the agonizing death of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron. As we read in chapter 10 of Leviticus:
Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them; thus, they died at the instance of the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “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. And Aaron was silent.”
It’s not at all clear what these two men did that displeased God. Some say that they intruded in a holy space that was off limits to human beings. Others say that they behaved in an irreverent manner while in the role of sacred officiants. Our moral compass would point us toward the conclusion that a terrible injustice was brought on Aaron’s sons. Whatever they did wrong, is it fair that they should have paid for their actions with their lives? Truthfully, readers of the Bible are often bewildered by the apparent absence of Divine justice. We want every Torah story to make sense according to our internal barometer of what is right and what is wrong, but that cannot always be. Divine justice is elusive and often we are left with no satisfying explanations as to why something happens. That is the nature of the Torah, just as it is the nature of life itself. To make ourselves feel better, we come up with creative explanations that eliminate the possibility that God needlessly killed two people. One such explanation I have always favored views Nadav and Avihu as being dead not physically but spiritually. Their irreverence for God and His sacred space meant that they were rendered unable to appreciate the deeply spiritual aspects of life.
Even more intriguing in this story is the ending- “and Aaron was silent.” After learning of the death of his sons, he says nothing. No cry, no grief, no protest. Don Isaac Abravanel (Spain and Italy, 1437-1508) takes note of the significance of the Hebrew word for “silent” used in this verse- vayidom. He writes, “His heart turned to lifeless stone (domem, related to vayidom, meaning ‘mineral’) …and he did not weep or mourn like a bereaved father, nor did he accept Moses’ consolation, for his soul had left him and he was speechless.” Here, Aaron’s silence is what we would expect- born out of trauma and unbearable grief.
It is also possible to understand Aaron’s silence as a response to his brother Moses’ clumsy, insensitive expression of consolation. Having learned that God has killed his two nephews, Moses attempts a horrific “I told you so” by explaining to Aaron that perhaps he should have known that God prioritizes Divine holiness and glory above human life. Aaron’s response to his brother’s candor is stunned silence. Among the many gifts Moses possesses, apparently, compassion isn’t among them, at least not in this instance. Aaron needed comfort, not a lesson in Divine Ego. Here the Torah can teach us something about how to speak to those who are suffering from the loss of a loved one.
Rabbi Eliezer Lipman Lichtenstein (Poland, 1848-1896) provides a beautiful insight into the ideal outcome of a person’s journey of healing from loss through his interpretation of Aaron’s silence. He writes:
Scripture chose “Vayidom” rather than “Vayishtok” (synonyms for silence). The latter signifies the abstention from speaking, weeping, moaning, or any other outward manifestation. The verb “vayidom,” however, connotes inner peace and calm. Accordingly, scripture describes the saintly Aaron as “vayidom” and not merely as “vayishtok,” thus emphasizing that his heart and soul were at peace within, that rather than questioning the standards of God he justified the Divine verdict.
This interpretation of Aaron’s silence, based on the Torah’s choice of words, could be understood to depict Aaron as unwilling to question God’s justice and peacefully accepting whatever fate God had for his sons. It may be that Rabbi Lichtenstein wanted to teach his followers about the importance of pure, uncompromised faith and that it is heretical to question God’s ways. But it can also be understood as a description of the frame of mind people who experience tragic loss might aspire toward. Perhaps the Torah is relating that Aaron was silent- eventually- after working through his grief and finally coming to a place of inner peace and calm. Rather than blame God or anyone else for the tragedy he experienced, he found the inner strength to accept that sometimes terrible things happen in life. He discovered the capacity to set aside his grief and resume his life.
Not everyone can do that, and among those who can, some take much longer to reach that place than others. But achieving inner peace and calm, along with growing to accept that most often we cannot change or reverse events, is the goal of bereavement and recovery from loss. With the help of friends and a supportive community, those who have been set back by tragedy and loss can heal and achieve a feeling of peace.
Silence is the complete absence of sound. But it is not the absence of meaning or insight. In this week’s installment of Torah, we encounter Aaron’s silence, and from it, we learn a great deal.