Parshat Shemini

Torah Reading for Week of April 15-21, 2012

“And the World Was Silent”
By Rabbi Cecilia Herzfeld-Stern, ‘11


Fire and silence.  In a strange way, they go together.  There is power in fire, in its capacity to create, or transform, as well as to destroy.  Depending upon the outcome, we are transfixed in a silent awe or horror.  At such times, we are rendered speechless, and silence seems to be the only response we can have.  But is it always?

The image of fire is used dramatically in biblical narratives to convey G-d as Creator or Destroyer. This week’s parsha, Shemini, contains an especially enigmatic example:

The sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, each took his fire pan, put fire in them, placed incense upon it, and brought it before HaShem [the unspeakable Name of G-d], an alien fire HaShem had not commanded them.  A fire came forth from before HaShem and consumed them; and they died before HaShem…and Aaron was silent (Lev 10:1-3)

Though biblical commentary is replete with numerous speculations about the strange fire, and inadequate explanations for why G-d would make “burnt offerings” of his priests, only Rashi, the great medieval commentator, addresses Aaron’s silence directly.  He wrote:  “He [Aaron] received a reward for this silence.  And what was it?  That a divine utterance came to him privately.”  What could Rashi mean by this?  How can one be “rewarded” for a response of silence to the horrific death of his sons?  And, what is this “divine utterance”?

Biblical commentary always begins with the Hebrew.  Noted German theologian and biblical scholar, H.F.W. Gesenius, in his Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament, extrapolates on the Hebrew word yeedom, translated as silent or “hold his peace” in this verse:

“This root [d-m-m] is…an imitation of the sound of the shut mouth (hm, dm)…to be dumb, applied both to silence and quietness, and to the stupefaction of one who is lost in wonder and astonishment; in the causative and transitive conjugations, it is applied to destruction and desolation, inasmuch as things or places which are destroyed and made desolate, are still and quiet.”

Again, silence has a different quality dependent upon the experience.  Aaron’s initial silence might have been shock at his sons’ creative fire offering (an “alien fire G-d had not commanded of them”) becoming a destructive burnt sacrifice of them.  Perhaps the “stupefaction” gave way to “stillness” or “quiet,” in which Aaron was “rewarded” with the divine utterance of G-d that the prophet Elijah later heard, kol d’mamah dakau, literally the “sound of silence” (I Kings 19:12).  Perhaps, this place brought Aaron divine comfort and strength in his grief, as the psalmist wrote:  “Truly my soul waits quietly (d’umeeyah) for G-d…Truly G-d is my rock and deliverance, my haven; I shall never be shaken” (Ps 62:1-3).

As we make our way through this text, we are reminded of another “strange fire”—in this week’s commemoration of Yom HaShoah.   We are reminded of the silence, the shock, the “stupefaction” of the world, “lost in astonishment to the destruction and desolation,” that defied any human comprehension. The human mind still tries to make sense of what is incomprehensible, when silence is the most appropriate response.   As the late Slonimer Rebbe* expressed so poignantly:

“A person’s heart and brain are incapable of grasping what happened here [in the Shoah].  There is no expression for this, for natural human emotions are too inconsequential to feel pain of such breadth and horrible depth.  Only mute silence, as it says, ‘And Aharon was silent,’ expresses our crushed hearts, better than any expression, which is not appropriate or correct for such a matter.”

(Al Hahashmada v’haChurban)

*(Almost all of the Slonimer Hasidim in Belarus, Europe perished during the Shoah.)

Perhaps, Aaron’s initial silence of his “crushed heart” gave way to the silence of his faith—where the prophets heard the Divine Utterance.   Biblically, this inner guidance always led to outer action.  G-d would not leave the prophets alone until they spoke out against the injustices of their times. And, so, too, our initial shock to atrocities in the world needs to give way to appropriate action.

The world’s silent response to the Shoah was deafening and oppressive.  As Nobel Peace Prize survivor Elie Wiesel wrote:

“The victim suffered more…profoundly from the indifference of the onlookers than from the brutality of the executioner…It was the silence of those he believed to be his friends—cruelty more cowardly, more subtle—which broke his heart…If this is the human society we come from—and now are abandoned by—why seek to return?”

There were few who were able to hear the stories so necessary for healing.  Once the world was finally ready to listen, there has been a continuous outpouring of unending grief—too overwhelming for our fragile psyches to confront, much less address. Yet, confront and address it we must.  What we do not face and deal with, rules our lives—collectively as well as individually. The Shoah represents the worst, and perhaps even the best, of what we, as human beings, are capable. We need to look at, and remember, it all.

The Shoah is receding into history, into the recesses of our forgetfulness, soon to be a distant memory, to which we cannot relate.  Rather than surrender it to the many simplistic clichés that already accompany its residence there, we need to engage with the struggles we have with this history.  Our initial shock of silence to atrocities in the world needs to give way to appropriate action.  Numbing silence can fuel destructive fires.  The divine utterance of wisdom can lead to tikkun olam, the repair of the world.  May we have the courage to listen and respond to the deafening silences of the world.

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