Minutes of Torah
In a world of senseless death, this week’s parashat Shemini presents us with the Torah’s prime example of inexplicable, tragic loss: the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, two of Aaron the priest’s four sons. Even more powerfully, this tragedy occurs precisely at the highest point in the priestly history: It is “opening day” at the Mishkan, after seven days of ceremony. On that day, God’s Presence manifests in the guise of Divine fire that consumes their initial offerings on the altar.
But then, the fire spreads and the two sons were no more.
One midrash tries to explain the situation as the brothers:
(1) coming too close to the sacred zone;
(2) bringing an unauthorized sacrifice;
(3) offering “alien fire;” and
(4) failing to consult with each other.
Another commentator argues that the brothers’ judgment was impaired by drink while they were engaging with powerful sacred materials, and so interprets their deaths not as punishment, but because of their negligence.
Other commentators view Nadav and Avihu positively as spiritual seekers trying to merge with the Divine. And to others, their death represented a reward for righteousness, indicating Divine favor and intimacy.
Moses explains this shocking event to his older brother in words often construed by tradition either as a rebuke or as a consolation:
“This is what the Lord meant when the Lord said: ‘Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.’”
In the face of the ambiguous rationalizing Moses offers, Aaron provides a powerful spiritual and ethical model for anyone facing this shocking loss: silence.
“Aaron was silent; he held his peace.”
Rashi explains Aaron’s silence as an indication of acceptance of the Divine judgment, for which God rewards Aaron. In the same vein, Nachmanides comments that Aaron cried aloud and then became silent, implying that that in his silence, grief did not cease. Perhaps this view enables us to understand Aaron’s silence not as a reaction to his catastrophe, but potentially as a model for responding wisely to anything we experience in the range from “unpleasant” to the truly incomprehensible.
In a sense, Aaron has pushed the ‘pause’ button in life. In that period during which Aaron has received the news of his two sons’ deaths, and Aaron needing to respond, Aaron senses a greater need to suspend all activity and do nothing, and just remains silent.
All too often, we do not have a pausal button that creates a space between the stimuli that bombard us constantly, and our requisite response to them. But if we could suspend things and be still even for a moment, we are able to proceed without succumbing to emotions like fear, pain, grief, guilt, or shame.
Aaron’s silence exemplifies for us this process of creating a space where we can hold powerful emotions such as anger and fear without allowing them to lead us into destructive reactions. Perhaps Aaron was aware that as a leader he needed to distance himself from the powerful feelings provoked by this incident — without repressing or denying them, or permitting them to govern the choices of his words and behaviors.
Aaron’s response –- or as some would erroneously say, his ‘non-response’ — offers us a model for responding to the immense challenges of our own time with wisdom and compassion for others and ourselves. While we may not have the luxury of spending a great deal of time before our world demands a response, each of us has milliseconds or more in which we can digest the news and incorporate it into our beings before we must make a response. By spending the quiet time with ourselves we are more likely to generate a human, rather than an animal, response to whatever has entered our worlds. And with the few moments of stillness, it may better enable us to handle the large and small trials we face.