Parshat Shemini

Torah Reading for Week of April 4 – April 10, 2010

“And Aaron Was Silent”

by Claire Gorfinkel
AJRCA Second-year Chaplaincy Student

Our Torah portion for this week opens as the ordination ceremony has been completed and Aaron takes on his priestly responsibilities, including making animal sacrifices to be consumed by fire that comes from G-d. It concludes with categories of pure and impure: foods that the Israelites may not eat and behaviors that make them impure (this is Leviticus, after all). In the middle is the dramatic episode where Aaron’s sons bring “strange fire” as an offering to G-d, and they too are consumed by a fire from G-d, and in the face of their death, “Aaron was silent.”

I have been thinking a lot about Aaron over the past several weeks. As congregational leaders and as Chaplains, we know that in the face of tragedy, silence is often a natural response – “I’m speechless!” – and sometimes the best response we can give to another is to sit with them as a silent witness and comfort to their pain. But I’m wondering if there isn’t something deeper going on with Aaron.

As with many of our biblical siblings, Aaron is the eldest son, greatly overshadowed by his younger brother. I wonder how he felt as a child. Did he know that his father left his mother in protest against Pharaoh’s anti-childbearing policies, and then returned? Did he witness his baby brother being abandoned in the bulrushes, and the distress that caused his mother and his sister? Did he feel scared that he too might be abandoned? Did he feel that he was being ignored?

When Moses returned as an adult, with his call from G-d, did anyone ask Aaron whether he wanted to serve as Moses’ mouthpiece before Pharaoh and the people? As a leading actor in a supporting role, Aaron’s character is left quite undeveloped. We hear about him but not from him; he has remarkably few lines of his own to speak.

We have arrived in the desert after crossing the sea. Aaron as High Priest is bedecked in his ritual garments. I imagine him late one night walking through the camp with his younger brother and venting: “All those jewels and those stones on my shoulders inscribed with the names of all the tribes – I feel like I’m carrying the weight of the world! And those bells on my robes! G-d said I had to wear them or die! It’s pretty tough when a man can’t take a step without everyone ‘hearing’ about it. And now these hand-and-foot-washing requirements for me and my sons: there’s an awful lot of details here, and so many threats of death. I don’t know if I can handle all this.” I wonder how Moses might have responded.

In the uproar surrounding the Golden Calf we do hear from Aaron, and he’s very defensive: “You know that this people is bent on evil.” In effect he is saying “they made me do it.” Then in Leviticus he is repeatedly given additional ritual responsibilities. Surrounded by blood and slaughtered animals and fires that come from G-d, he and his sons must act correctly “that you may not die.”

Finally we come to Shemini, and the “strange fire,” the un-authorized incense ritual of Nadab and Abihu. Yet again “fire came forth from G-d” but this time it consumed them. Setting aside the seeming insensitivity of Moses’ remark that the deaths of two young people serve to glorify the Holy One, I think that Aaron’s silence in the face of his sons’ deaths indicates that he’s devastated and traumatized by his life experience. No one listened to him; no one asked him whether he was up to this; he’s constantly threatened with death if he misses a detail and now perhaps the worst thing a parent can imagine has happened before his eyes: his sons are consumed in fire “sent from G-d” and his brother is suggesting that it’s somehow a holy event! “And Aaron was silent.” I believe that the shock was overwhelming and it’s a wonder he rose to defend himself later over the question of eating the sin-offering.

The lesson for us in this is a warning not to take on roles (or identities) that we have not asked for. At our AJR, CA retreat one alumna spoke of how she deliberately told her synagogue’s search committee what tasks she could not do, and on the basis of that information they brought in others to support her in that area. Moses argued with G-d and asked for help; so should we. As congregational leaders and as Chaplains we must also listen to our constituents – and our siblings and our children – to be sure we’re not assuming that they can handle all the roles that have been laid upon them. This is holy work, but we can’t do it alone and no-one should have to suffer in silence.

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