In Parashat Sh’mini we read of a great tragedy that befalls the people of Israel on the very day that it celebrates the dedication of the Mishkan, the sanctuary in the desert. Two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring an unauthorized offering and, consequently, they are slain by a fire that issues forth from heaven. We are told that when Aaron was informed of his sons’ death he said nothing: “And Aaron was silent.”
The meaning of silence is of course ambiguous. In the Talmud there is a dispute as to whether, in a case where one party claims that another owes him money and the other party remains silent, we should interpret the silence as being an admission of obligation. Of course, the failure to respond to an accusation may be an act of concession, but it may equally well be means of indicating that the accused feels no need to respond to what he considers a baseless accusation.
Silence may also be an act of contempt. It may be the equivalent of someone saying, “I will not dignify that remark with a reply.” Indeed, Proverbs advises us, “Do not answer a fool in his foolishness.”
The ambiguity of silence’s significance is rooted in its avoidance of dialogue; it indicates that no further discussion is necessary, either because what has been said is obviously correct or because it is clearly baseless. That is, silence may indicate an embrace of what was said previously or it might be its opposite, an act of total disengagement.
There is another type of silence, namely silence in the face of tragedy—the silence of Aaron. What was going on in Aaron’s mind as he stood there speechless? It may be, and there is a rabbinic tradition to this effect, that Aaron’s silence expressed his acceptance of the Divine decree. As painful, and perhaps inexplicable, as his sons’ deaths may have been, Aaron deferred to God’s greater wisdom.
However, there are at least two other possibilities. One is that Aaron was furious with God for having taken the lives of his sons, but he was reluctant to express this anger. It may be that he feared that in his rage he would utter some blasphemy. Alternatively, he may have seen such an outburst as pointless in the face of Divine Will.
There is, I believe, another possibility as well. Perhaps Aaron’s silence was a form of disengagement, in at least two senses. The first may have been an emotional reaction beyond his control. The horror of what had occurred was so great that Aaron’s mind may have shut down, thereby blanking out what had befallen his sons. Perhaps it was only in this way that he could bear the pain of his loss at that moment.
It may also be, however, that Aaron’s silence was a means of disengaging from his persona as priest. How difficult it must have been for Aaron to serve God in the very place where that same God had taken the lives of two of his children. Aaron continued his holy work, but there was some part of him that was now silent, that did not turn to God in prayer and praise as it did in the past. The fire that killed Aaron’s sons had wounded him profoundly as well.
We contemporary Jews often have difficulty believing that God listens to our prayers or that God concerns God’s self with the fate of individual human beings at all. And yet we are angry at God when tragedy befalls us; at that moment, apparently, we believe or would like to believe that God could have responded to our pleas and averted the catastrophe. This is particularly true when we deal with the death of a loved one, especially when that death is untimely.
On the face of it, traditional liturgy responds to this anger and questioning by simply affirming the justice of God’s ways. The blessing that is to be recited upon hearing of the death of a relative declares that God is a true judge. The rite surrounding burial is known as zidduq ha-din, a vindication of God’s decree. The words of the kaddish do not address the thoughts and feelings of the mourner. Instead they are a praise of God.
There is, however, an interesting custom which is reminiscent of Aaron’s silence. It is the practice to omit from the mourners’ kaddish one of the paragraphs that is a part of the full kaddish. This paragraph, which begins with the word titqabel, states: “May all the prayers and pleas of the people Israel find acceptance before their Father in Heaven.” Why is this paragraph omitted? It is, I believe, the silence of Aaron. This omission is a declaration of disengagement. Yes, God, I will continue to pray to you and serve you, but I cannot be expected at this moment, when you have taken from me the one I love, to declare that You are the One who hears prayers. My prayer, at least, has gone unanswered. In this moment of mourning, I will not pretend otherwise.
Belief in God is not the acceptance of a set of propositions, but rather committing ourselves to a relationship with God’s living presence. Our relationship with God, like any relationship, will have moments of love and intimacy as well as times of anger and distance. It is important and consoling to know that our liturgy recognizes that God sometimes disappoints us, and that we need to express that disappointment in order to maintain the integrity of our relationship. Sometimes the most powerful and appropriate answer is silence.
The publication and distribution of the JTS commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.