Shemini 5781 – The Sound of Silence

By: Iris Sheppard

Last week the Torah, in Parshat Tzav, described the dedication ceremony for the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the inauguration of Aaron and his sons as kohanim. This week’s parasha, Parashat Shemini, picks up on the eighth day as Aaron and his sons begin to officiate as kohanim. It happens to be one of those parahsa’s that have always troubled me. I know this D’Var might will leave you, as it does me, with more questions than insights.

Aaron’s two elder sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer a “strange fire before G‑d, which He commanded them not” and die. Aaron turns silent. Moses and Aaron disagree on a point of law regarding the offerings, for which Moses concedes that Aaron is in the right.

The laws of kashrut, identifying the animals permissible and forbidden for consumption. Land animals may be eaten only if they have split hooves and chew their cud; fish must have fins and scales; a list of non-kosher birds is given, and a list of kosher insects (four types of locusts).

And it concludes with some of the laws of ritual purity, including the purifying power of the mikvah (a pool of water meeting specified qualifications) and the wellspring. The people of Israel are enjoined to “differentiate between the impure and the pure.”

This is one of those parahsa’s that have always troubled me. It transitions quite fast away from the death of Aaron’s sons. What was to have been a celebration turns to tragedy. Aaron’s two sons die in front of him. Their bodies are carried from the Sanctuary to outside the camp.

Moses tells Aaron “Don’t show your mourning, lest God become angry with the entire community. But know well that your brethren, the entire House of Israel, shall bewail the burning that God has kindled. Do not leave this place in the Sanctuary, for God’s anointing oil is upon you.”

Then we learn that G-d directs Aaron “Drink no intoxicating wine when you or your sons enter the Tent of Appointed Meeting so that you may not die. This is a law for all time throughout your generations to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, the contaminated and the pure.”

No time is spent on the why behind Nadav and Avihu’s deaths. The commentaries differ widely; some say the two sons were driven by love of G-d; others put forth thoughts of jealousy and competition.

No time is spent on why Aaron went silent. Was it his choice? Did the words from Moses about not showing mourning stop the sound? Was he in shock? Was he angry? Was his silence due to grief or fear? Did memories of an earlier offering, the Golden Calf, come into play? The outcome then turned into a 40-year journey. A journey the people are closer to finishing at this point. Would a sound now from Aaron trigger G-d’s anger once again?

Aaron is a major figure in the people’s lives. He is a leader and teacher. He is a model to observe and learn from. What is conveyed here from his silence has always puzzled me.

I’ll leave you with my unanswered questions plus a prompt for thought – Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said in his commentary on Shemini that “The power to be silent at certain moments of life and of history is an important strength.