Minutes of Torah
This week’s Torah reading of parashat Shemini includes the mysterious death of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu:
“Now Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before Adonai an “alien fire,” which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from Adonai and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of Adonai.”
The terseness of the Torah makes it difficult to say why they died. Was the fire that came forth a fire of God’s punishment for their offering of an “alien fire”? What does this even mean, an “alien fire”? Over the millennia, the commentators have tried to come up with explanations. Moses himself tries to make sense out of this.
But the inescapable fact is that people are killed. And we don’t know why.
The only response that seems to take in the full reality of what has happened comes from Aaron:
“And Aaron was silent.”
Aaron is silent. He is still. He stands at attention. It seems that Aaron stands and sees into the void of not-knowing what has happened.
The Hebrew word that is translated as “silence,” also appears in the story of Elijah the Prophet. Elijah has his famous confrontation with the Israeli King Ahab and the prophets of the pagan god Baal, demonstrating to them that there is only one God. In this confrontation, the prophets of Baal make a sacrifice and call upon their god to respond, but to no avail. Then Elijah makes an offering on an altar and calls upon the God of Israel. Fire comes down from God and consumes the offering. Ahab and his prophets are not pleased with this, and they threaten to kill Elijah.
Elijah runs for his life into the wilderness. There he is alone and afraid, and a strange scene plays itself out. Elijah He makes his way to the mountain of God. Once he is there, Elijah has an experience with God:
“And lo, Adonai passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of Adonai; but Adonai was not in the wind. And after the wind there was an earthquake; but Adonai was not in the earthquake; And after the earthquake there was a fire; but Adonai was not in the fire. And after the fire there was a still small voice.”
When Elijah hears that “still small voice,” he knows God is there with him, and God then gives Elijah guidance for what to do next in his mission. The Hebrew word for that “still small voice” that Elijah hears is from that same word which is used for Aaron’s silence.
There are parallels between Elijah’s and Aaron’s experiences. Both men witness God’s presence in fire that consumes a sacrifice. But they also witness fire that doesn’t come from God – the alien fire of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu’s sacrifice gone awry; and the fire (following the wind and the earthquake) in Elijah’s wilderness. And both men experience the “voice” of stillness, perhaps something like Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence.”
For Elijah, the sound of silence signals him that he is in God’s Presence, that he is no longer alone,and that he will soon find some sense of direction. For Aaron too, the stillness is a way of his being with the unfolding of the Divine, as he waits for clarity and wisdom.
Silence. Not knowing. These experiences make us so uncomfortable. It is scary to not know, to not be in control, to just stand there feeling our grief or fear. So often we react in order to fill and avoid that empty space. Our reaction may appear to ourselves and to others as decisiveness, as strength, as knowing what we are doing. The reaction may fulfill a desire for revenge, for payback, for settling scores. But the questions don’t go away. And every intuitive reaction creates more confusion.
So, perhaps we should learn that silence, too, is a response to an experience that shakes our lives. Silence need not be seen as a sign of defeat. Rather, that moment of silence may allow us to fully understand what is happening in our lives, so that we are more likely to successfully confront the real challenge in our path.