By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant
For several weeks and many chapters – the longest prelude in the Torah – we have read of the preparations for the moment at which God would bring His Presence to rest amid the people. Five Torah parshiot (Teruma, Tetzaveh, Ki Tisa, Vayakhel, and Pekudi) all describe the instructions for building the Sanctuary. Two, Vayikra and Tzav, detail the sacrificial offerings to be brought by the Israelites to the door of the Tabernacle. All is now ready. For seven days, the Kohanim (Aaron and his sons) are consecrated by Moses into their respective offices.
This week’s parsha, Shemini, begins with the eighth day, when the service of the Mishkan will begin. The entire People have played their part in what will become the Divine Presence on earth. With a simple moving verse, the drama reaches its climax: “Moses and Aaron went into the Tent of Meeting, and when they came out, they blessed the People; God’s glory was then revealed”(1).
Just as we think that the narrative has reached closure, a terrifying scene takes place: “Aaron’s sons, Nadabi and Abihu took their censers, placed incense and fire into the vessels and offered this at the altar of God; fire came forth and consumed the brothers so that they died instantly”(2). Celebration turned into tragedy. The Torah offers no explanation for this immensely shocking event.
For thousands of years, both our sages and more modern day rabbinical scholars have speculated on innumerable reasons that might have been at the root of this catastrophe: Nadabi and Abihu died because they entered the ‘Holy’ of ‘Holies,; they were not wearing the requisite attire, they did not consult either Aaron or Moses, they were inebriated or they were just guilty of hubris, impatient to assume leadership roles themselves. The explanations for the sudden, inexplicable deaths of Aaron’s two eldest sons are just a sample of the myriad of interpretations of the event which is so casually mentioned in parsha Shemini.
Moses attempted to console Aaron, intimating that Nadabi and Abihu died for the “sanctification of God…and Aaron was silent”(3). Like the mystery surrounding the precipitate and shocking deaths, the Torah offers no clues or insight into Aaron’s total absence of any verbal expression.
The commentary pertaining to Aaron’s ‘silence’ is distinguished from the diverse opinions relating to the death of his sons. Virtually all the sages praised the act of ‘silence’ and considered it to be a “sign of wisdom”(4). One rabbinical scholar and Talmudist, Chaim ibn Attar, interpreted Psalm 5:2, “Silence is Praise for you,” as indicating that silence is the height of all praises from God(5).
‘Silence’ in grief is perceived to free us from extraneous, hindering thoughts, thereby allowing our minds to be elevated(6). According to Rashi, Aaron was rewarded for his silence with a revelation directly from God.
There is an extraordinary element of the Torah, and how the biblical writers composed each line of every parsha. The intellect and creativity of each reader is challenged to formulate their own interpretations, enabling all of us to become ‘sages’ for future generations.
(1) LEVITICUS (9:23)
(2) LEVITICUS (10:2)
(3) LEVITICUS (10:3)
(4) “Torah Gems”
(5) Chaim Ibn Attar (1696-1743) Warsaw, Poland
(6) “Torah Table Talk”