Without a doubt, Parashat Shemini includes one of the most heart-wrenching, devastating narratives of the Torah. In the midst of our learning about the process by which the Israelites and their leaders can come into greater intimacy and relationship with God, we read as Moshe, Aaron, and Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu are themselves in the midst of offering sacrifices with this very goal in mind: bringing God into greater proximity with themselves and the Israelites. And then, with little warning, as Nadav and Avihu are making an offering, a fire comes forth, and they are killed by God.
This moment, both sudden and jarring, has left our tradition without a clear answer to make sense of it all. Many of our rabbis seek to harmonize this tragedy with a vision of a God who is without fault, pointing out the ways that Nadav and Avihu erred in their process of offering, and suggesting that they were thus solely to blame for their own deaths. Vayikra Rabbah explains that the two young men acted while under the influence, while Ibn Ezra argues that they were not commanded to bring any fire at all, let alone the “strange fire” specified in the text (Vayikra 10:1).
But while there are many explanations that let God off the hook, I am in the camp of readers that can’t see past the severity of this punishment. And if the shocking nature of their deaths isn’t enough, Nadav and Avihu’s passing is made all the more tragic when we consider that their father is by their side as they are seemingly senselessly taken from this world. In the text, after their death, Moshe turns and speaks to Aaron. And then, “וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן”—“Aaron was silent” (Vayikra 10:3).
While the justification of Nadav and Avihu’s passing is challenging to fit into our personal theologies, perhaps Aaron’s silence can offer us an opportunity to confront the feelings of being let down; of the horror, sadness, or anger that we may be feeling toward God. Some of our classical commentators continue to afford God the benefit of the doubt and presume that in his silence Aaron is doing the same. Rashi explains that his silence is not grief but an acceptance of the mysterious God whom we can’t always understand. Rashbam expounds that Aaron in fact will go on to be rewarded for this virtuous silence. But I believe these readings do a disservice to Aaron’s tragedy, and don’t allow us to be in an honest relationship with God.
My teacher, Rabbi Eliezer Diamond, has a few different understandings of Aaron’s silence. Perhaps it could be as straightforward as grief manifesting as shock—that Aaron is still processing the horror of what has transpired, and words can’t yet take shape. Or maybe, Rabbi Diamond says, it’s disengagement. In the face of trauma we react with fight or flight or by freezing, and Aaron has frozen, incapable of comprehending that which has just unfolded before his eyes. Or, perhaps most compellingly, Aaron’s silence is anger. There are no words, no justification or relationship that Aaron is capable of extending to God in a moment of absolute devastation.
When we tragically lose a loved one, we often deal with a crisis of faith. How can we stay in a relationship with a God who would cause this, or allow this to happen? Aaron’s silence teaches us that in our grief we have another option of how to align our thoughts, beyond searching for justification or having a complete loss of faith. Perhaps there is a place for the anger found in Aaron’s silence, in our prayers. When we as mourners recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, we omit one line from the full Kaddish: “May all the prayers and pleas of the people Israel find acceptance before you God.” Rabbi Diamond writes: 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…has gone unanswered. In this moment of mourning, I will not pretend otherwise.
In a parashah all about coming closer to God, let us take a cue from Aaron. Intimacy with the Divine is not all about physical closeness, nor is it always about praise or strict adherence to the mitzvot. Closeness with God is sometimes about offering the same vulnerability we offer in our most sacred relationships. Our expression of righteous anger or exceeding disappointment, and even a biting silence, are sometimes the most fitting messages we can send God so that the Divine can truly know us and we can become closer, and God willing, find healing along the way.