Parshat Shemini

Torah Reading for Week of March 20-26, 2011

“Aaron’s Silence and Patience”
By Rabbi Andrew Feig, ‘07

Last week, we celebrated the holiday of Purim, a holiday whose theme is nahafoch hu, the turning of things upside down.  Just as Haman thought he was going to win out over the Jews, Esther and Mordecai propelled a turn of events, and the Jews won out over Haman.  As we all know, the world is currently undergoing momentous change; Purim’s teaching of nahafoch hu is truly visible in the most dramatic sense: revolutions overturning dictators in the Middle East, terror in Israel, and catastrophic disaster in Japan.  The world is in constant flux, brought on by the desire for justice, humanity’s hatred, and the power of Mother Nature.

This week, we read in our Torah portion, Shemini, about another tragedy; the deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu.  According to the sidra, the two sons, high priests, offered an aish zara, a strange fire, which G-d had not commanded they bring.  As a result of this strange fire, a fire went out from G-d that killed the sons outright.  The Torah goes on to note that Aaron, their father, is silent – va’yidom Aharon – following their deaths.  Why was Aaron silent?  What does this “silence” mean?  A range of emotions and reactions are provided by the commentaries, each, I think, expressing some wisdom and guidance for accepting either tragic fate or calculated change.

Abravanel expresses the feeling that any parent would feel at the loss of one’s children when describing Aaron’s silence; “his heart turned to lifeless stone…for his soul had left him and he was speechless.”  (Leibowitz, New Studies in Vayikra, p.133) Moses Mendelssohn, in his commentary, the Biur, understands Aaron’s reaction differently.  Aaron’s silence is not the absence of mourning, Mendelssohn explains, but patience and inner composure, the reaction of one who accepts one’s fate.

Sometimes, in the face of senseless tragedy, we are struck dumb – we don’t know what to say.  The silence that follows, however, may offer more possibility than words can ever provide.  Silence affords one an opportunity for reflection and care in preparation for reaction to tragedy, or confronting a disaster or dramatic change.  We know this example from Jewish tradition which provides a series of graduated mourning periods from which one might emerge from an initial state of shock to a more resigned state of mind.

This nahafoch hu period in our history requires patience and deliberateness on the part of our leaders and advisors.  We are living in a fluid period of history, one that puts stress on striving for this patience.

We are in shock at the bombing in Jerusalem this week.  How should the Israeli and the Palestinian leadership react?  How will these reactions stem the cycle of violence and affect prospects for peace?  Aaron’s model should inspire leaders to be circumspect in their thinking as they consider actions and reactions to this current crisis.  How can we best support the revolts in the Middle East?  What role can world powers play?  What effect will possible interventions have short and long term?  Each country in crisis has a complex culture with a unique political and historical background; deliberative and meditative steps should be taken when considering participation in these complex situations.

There are, of course, times when immediate action is needed and delay may cause further catastrophe, as in the case with the Japanese clean up and recovery efforts.  But careful reflection and thought must also prepare us for the future when considering the management of our own and the world’s nuclear energy resources.

Aaron’s silence is a powerful reminder of the check on rushing to action even when the world is turning upside down.


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