Silence and Loss

Shemini By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Mar 18, 2014 / 5774

One of the most enigmatic and painful moments of all of Tanakh occurs in Parashat Shemini. Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, come before the altar and offer what Torah describes as an “alien fire.” Without any sense of deliberation or warning, a divine fire issues forth and consumes Aaron’s progeny. Clearly shocked by the mystery of their deaths, Leviticus tells us that “Aaron was silent” (Lev. 10:1–3). Though I have often pointed to Aaron and his response as a powerful example of mourning the inexplicable loss of loved ones, Nahmanides gives us pause to reconsider the peshat(Torah’s literal meaning) of this verse. I, and many others, have always understood Aaron’s reaction as a deep, impenetrable silence reflecting the most genuine and profound reaction to tragedy. Ramban is far more nuanced in his reading.

Ramban comments, “‘And Aaron was silent.’ This means that he had cried aloud, but then became silent. Or perhaps the meaning is as in the verse, ‘Give yourself no respite, your eyes no rest (tidom)’ (Lamentations 2:18).” Thus, he suggests two compelling interpretations. First, Ramban reads deeper into the text suggesting that Aaron, at first, cried aloud and then fell silent. If we are to embrace Nahmanides’s reading, it necessitates translating the relevant part of the verse as “And Aaron became silent.” In that case, paralyzing silence is not Aaron’s initial reaction to losing both of his sons. He cries aloud, as one would expect, and only after this expression of mourning does he become silent. Alternatively, Nahmanides bases his second reading on a verse from Lamentations. There, the Hebrew “dom” (falling silent) is read in the context of tears pouring forth from one’s eyes. And so, applying this understanding to our verse leads one to an image of Aaron’s tears ceasing altogether. Both tears and verbal lament cease, and Aaron begins the process of healing.

What I find most empowering about Ramban’s perspective—in contrast to what is often understood as the peshat of the verse—is that Ramban allows the reader to embrace the full spectrum of responses to personal tragedy. Silence, crying, and wailing are all appropriate expressions of deep loss. Recognizing this spectrum of human response makes us stronger as a family and as a nation.

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