Parashah Ponderings

As Aaron Was Silent in the Face of Tragedy, Let Us Be Silent, Too

Parashat Shemini / פרשת שמיני
Torah Portion: Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47

Around the world this week Jewish communities observed Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Young and old, survivors and their descendants, Jews and non-Jews came together for memorial services, choral and theatrical performances, and countless educational programs. These annual commemorations provide consolation, remind us never to forget, and move us to ensure that such an atrocity never happens again, all noble, worthy goals that I myself am committed to pursuing in my life and work.

At the end of the day, though, no observance can adequately capture the unfathomable grief born by generations past, present and future in the wake of the Shoah. The magnitude of the horror is simply incomprehensible. How does one begin to mourn for Six Million Jews and the five million non-Jews who were exterminated with them? Perhaps the most honest response is that of the nation of Israel: at 10 a.m. on the day of Yom Hashoah sirens blare and life for many comes to a complete halt for one minute. Traffic stops. Pedestrians stand still. Commercial transactions wait. The sirens sound, but all is silent.

This year, the Torah reading for the week of Yom Hashoah appears as commentary to this remembrance. In Parashat Shemini, on the day of their inauguration into the priesthood Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu “offer before Adonai alien fire, which God had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from Adonai and consumed them” (Leviticus 10:1-2).

Witnessing this tragedy, Moses speaks to Aaron words of consolation, explanation or rebuke, depending on one’s interpretation: “This is what Adonai meant when God said, ‘Through those near to Me, I will be sanctified and before all the people I will be glorified.'”

Hearing this, or perhaps not hearing anything at all, the stunned father responds. The Torah relates: “And Aaron was silent” (Lev. 10:3).

The scene is heart-wrenching. Two sons snatched from their father in an instant. It doesn’t matter what they did. It doesn’t matter what Moses said to him. Nothing matters. The boys were gone. What could Aaron do? Nothing. Therefore, he was silent.

Biblical commentators throughout the ages have pondered exactly what Nadav and Avihu did to ignite God’s wrath. Were they drunk? Were they acting out of zeal rather than reverence for the word of God? Were they coveting the position of high priest held by their father, an office the elder of the sons would one day occupy? The truth is, we don’t know. All we know is what Moses says, which is that God was trying to make a point, though what that point was is also open to interpretation. For Aaron, at that moment of realizing that two of his sons had just died, none of that mattered. It didn’t make sense. What could he possibly do?

Now, let me be clear. The Six Million were not Nadav and Avihu, and God did not bring about the Shoah. It is morally reprehensible to suggest that those who perished in the Shoah did anything to bring about their extermination or that God was trying to teach humankind a lesson through this atrocity. And I suspect Aaron could have made the same argument to Moses. “They were just boys showing God their love! Don’t talk to me about ‘I will be sanctified!'”

Truth be told, on Yom Hashoah we are all this Aaron. Though we read and sing and listen and light candles in pursuit of meaning and catharsis, all we can really do in our grief is nothing. Six Million snatched from the Jewish people in an instant. Let us be silent.