When the ground shakes and buildings begin to crumble, what do we do? When the earth is swept away by water, what do we do? When a family is savagely murdered in their beds, what do we do? When the world seems constantly on the brink of disaster, of calamity and catastrophe, both natural and human-made, what do we do? What can we do? Our response to tragedy is often to say, “What can we do, how can we help?” We send money, bring food, we mourn, we cry. We respond out loud. But what about when we are the victims – not the ones who are far away, waiting to open our hearts and our wallets, but when we are the ones who feel the earth move beneath our feet?
In this week’s parasah, Sh’mini, Aaron experiences the ultimate personal tragedy. Two of his sons are consumed by the fire of G-d for bringing esh zarah, strange fire. One can imagine that, for Aaron, the ground shook and the earth was swept out from under him as he watched his children die before his eyes. The text then tells us, “va’yidom Aharon,” “And Aaron was silent.”
A number of commentators seek to understand Aaron’s silence. Rashi tells us that Aaron’s silence is an acceptance of G-d’s judgment, whether or not he understands it. Rashbam also understands “And Aaron was silent,” as a sign of acceptance of G-d’s judgment, but he reads deeper feelings under the surface of the silence. Rashbam understands Aaron as wanting to mourn and cry out loud, but he keeps it inside for the sake of the sacrificial ceremonies and doing what is best for the Israelite people.
Ramban takes another reading of Aaron’s silence. He reads the word va’yidom in two different ways. The first possibility he sees is that Aaron became silent after a period of mourning. However, even in his silence he is still in mourning, he is just able to keep it inside of him after a period of outward mourning. The second possibility that Ramban sees is that va’yidom means that Aaron stopped mourning all together. After a period of time, Aaron is able to stop mourning both inside and outside.
Although I understand the impulse of Rashi and Rashbam to have Aaron understand and accept G-d’s judgment, at least outwardly, it is difficult for me to reconcile the tragedies of the past few days and weeks with these understandings. The silences we have heard are those of shock, sadness, desperation and uncertainty. It is not a silence of acceptance, nor should it be. Our reaction in the face of tragedy, whether personal or communal, whether in our own city or half a world away, should not be a silence of acceptance. Instead, we should follow the example of Ramban. First, we cry and mourn. We express our shock and sadness but then, we are silent. Because in our silence is when the work starts. As Ramban reminds us, the pain is still there, and it may never heal, but we make the transition from crying and mourning to rebuilding and moving forward.
The Jewish Federations of North America Rabbinic Cabinet
Cabinet Chair: Les Bronstein
Vice Chair: Frederick Klein
Vice Chair: Larry Kotok
Vice Chair: Steven Lindemann
Vice Chair: Fredi Cooper
Vice Chair: Tina Grimberg
Vice Chair: Jonathan Berkun
Vice Chair: Jack Luxemberg
President: Stuart Weinblatt
Honorary President: Matthew Simon
Director of the Rabbinic Cabinet: Gerald I. Weider
The opinions expressed in Mekor Chaim articles are solely of the author and do not reflect any official position of Jewish Federations of North America or the Rabbinic Cabinet