Parshat Emor

Torah Reading for Week of May 1-7, 2011
Yom HaShoah

“When Silence Speaks Louder than Words”
By Cecilia Herzfeld-Stern, AJRCA Fifth Year Rabbinical Student

Silence. Torah is replete with silence; the space between the words, the gaps in the dialogues and the narratives. From Abraham’s acquiescent silence in response to the first “holocaust” of Jewish narrative, the Akeda, to the suffering silence of Job, we have more silence, more questions than answers.  With all this silence, why do we continue to return to Torah week after week, year after year?  Our Sages respond: to ask questions.

Silence. A deafening experience of the void, or a divine experience of listening for the still voice within.  Silence.  A lack of response, or a respectful response to that for which there is no response. Silence has been a prominent theme of the Shoah. Silence is the paradoxical language of the Shoah, and G-d. Silence can be a loss or inadequacy of words yet can speak volumes more than words, more deeply, more profoundly.  Through Midrash the Rabbis have created a process of entering into the expanse, the void of silence, the gaps between words—the space between form, texture, color, sound, movement—and decipher what is actually being communicated.  As a survivor of the Shoah and life student of Torah, Elie Wiesel returns to Torah week after week, year after year, to probe all these silences, to ask the unanswerable questions of life.

Wiesel once shared in an interview that he studies Tanakh, Talmud, Midrash and other sacred Jewish writings to survive.  For him, survival is finding the balance between the past and the present. “One never leaves the past behind,” he writes,  “because the past is in the present. And without the past, the present would be empty.”  Torah is our past made present.

In a recent parsha (which opens the Book of Leviticus), we read the shocking story of how Aaron’s priestly sons, Nadav and Avihu, became the “burnt offering” in the “strange fire” they offered before G-d that was not commanded; they became another “holocaust” in Torah narrative. Aaron’s response was silence.  Wiesel questions: “What could he say?  What can be said?”  Wiesel believes Aaron’s silence informs us that “in certain situations, silence is best.”  Yet, this is the paradoxical dilemma he faced as a survivor of the Shoah.  He and others believe there is no other response to the Shoah. That silence says more than words. Yet, he and others have been compelled to speak.

This week’s parsha, Emor (to “speak”) is a continuation of the Book of Leviticus’ Code of Holiness, where G-d continues to instruct Moses in what it is to be holy, and the consequences of not doing so. In a reversal of holy speech, we are confronted with yet another horrifying consequence at the end of the parsha of what happens when G-d’s commandments have been violated.  G-d’s Name was “pronounced in blasphemy,” and the punishment was that the blasphemer was stoned to death by all those who witnessed it.  HUC Professor of Modern Jewish Thought, Dr. Rachel Adler presents an interesting pshat (“seeking to understand the text within the parameter of its historical, literary, and linguistic context”).  She remarks that “a curious term is used for pronouncing the Name: nokeiv shem YHVH [v. 16]. The Hebrew root nun-kuf-vet generally means ‘to pierce’ or ‘to bore’ a hole in something.”  And then she asks:

What did it mean in ancient Israel to blasphemy?  The verb nun-kuf-vet is an act of violence.  The name YHVH, derived from the verb “to be” may mean “The One Who Is” or Was-Is-Will Be” or “Being” or “Becoming”…In ancient Israel, as in many cultures, [G-d’s Name] partook of the reality it represented.  Hence, the blasphemer who tears a hole in the Divine Name, tears a hole in the integrity of all that exists, all that the One Who is Being called into being” (italics mine).

The Shoah tore such a hole in the integrity of the world, in the existence of the Jewish people, in our faith.  Blasphemy is not only unholy speech; it can lead to unholy action.  The Talmud speaks of ona’ah devarim, “hurtful words,” that can be far more damaging, cause far more lasting damage than physical abuse.  The escalation of hurtful speech in Nazi Germany got so out of hand that it led to an unthinkable end.  Paradoxically, we are left speechless.

At the end of his interview, Wiesel concludes:

When no words are possible, silence can be an alternative language.  It is possible to transform silence into a language; to have a language of silence….We must always ask ourselves what is the best language to let suffering speak.  Sometimes our answer may be silence.

This may be a teaching we can take away from this parsha:  that is, when to speak, and when not to, and then to remember the power of words—they can create or they can destroy.  Torah, as a whole, also cautions us not to jump to answers. Sometimes, there are none that are adequate, that are respectful.  Torah teaches us to learn how to be in the gaps, the silence.