As a parent it is hard to imagine how I would respond upon hearing the death of one of my children, let alone two of them. In Shemini, this week’s Torah portion, we read of Aaron’s response to hearing the death of two of his sons. There we read:
Then Moses said to Aaron: ‘This is it that the Lord spoke, saying: Through them that are close to Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10:3)
Why would God take his two children? I could imagine many responses, but not one of them is silence. It seems even more peculiar when you continue reading the Torah and Rashi’s commentary which are clearly seeking a rational for the death of Aaron’s sons. Than we read:
The Lord spoke to Aaron saying. Do not drink intoxicating win, you and your sons with you, when you come to the Tent of Meeting, that you not die – this is an eternal decree for your generations.( Leviticus 10:8-9)
Don’t you think this “eternal decree” would have been nice to hear about before his sons got killed at the hands of God? This just seems unjust. I do not understand how Aaron could possibly hold his silence upon hearing this. While I do not ever think I can understand Aaron’s deafening silence, what do I make of Moses attempt at theodicy? How is it that the greatest teacher of Israel has no pastoral skills?
At the end of the very same chapter we read:
And Aaron spoke to Moses: ‘Behold, this day have they offered their sin-offering and their burnt-offering before the Lord, and there have befallen me such things as these; and if I had eaten the sin-offering today, would it have been well-pleasing in the sight of the Lord? And when Moses heard that, it was well-pleasing in his sight. (Leviticus 10:1-20)
On this, Rashi reads in an entire back story in which Aaron and Moses are discussing the finer points of mourning and sacrificial laws. What does it mean that Moses approved of what Aaron said? Rashi interprets it to me mean that Moses admitted that Aaron was right in his interpretation of the law. Moses was not ashamed to admit” Lo Shamati“- that he had not heard the Law. Aaron was right and Moses was wrong in terms of interpreting these laws.
On another level this comment by Aaron is his first words after the death of his son’s. This is what ended the silence. Above and beyond Aaron’s ability to hold his tongue, his ability to stick to his job and serve in the Temple after such a perceived injustice is truly remarkable. In light of this, I want to offer a drasha on Rashi’s understanding of Moses saying ” Lo Shamati“. While Moses saw Aaron doing his job and was happy to see that. By saying Lo Shamati – Moses admitted that he did not hear Aaron. What did Aaron say? Nothing and that is the point. Moses missed the profundity of Aaron’s silence.
All to often, as a Rabbi and for that matter as an educator, father, and husband I am reactive and not proactive. I am less of an actor and more of a re-actor in my own life. I know of myself that I do not always know what to do with silence. Often the best response is to recognize it and to just sit with it. It seems that Moses was obtuse to Aaron’s silence, but in admitting his fault Moses shows us all how we might all strive to deal better with others’ tragedies. Often there is nothing to say. You just have to be present and do a lot of listening.