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Parashat Shemini

March 24, 2011

By Michael G. Kohn

And Aaron fell silent . . .

As a congregational rabbi with an aging congregation comforting the bereaved, while fortunately not an everyday occurrence, nevertheless constitutes a significant portion of my time. In addition, as an on-call chaplain at a major medical center, I am occasionally called to come there in the middle of the night to comfort a family who has just lost a loved one. These visits are never easy, even when the loved one has lived a full measure of years and death was expected.

Reactions to a loved one’s passing vary from individual to individual and from circumstance to circumstance. There often are tears; occasionally, cries of anguish. Some want to tell me about their loved one. And others just want to be alone with their thoughts. In this week’s parashah, after the death of two of his sons for “offering before the Lord alien fire, which [God] had not enjoined upon them”, the Torah tells us: vayidom aharon – “And Aaron fell silent.” Aaron, the one God had appointed to be Moses’ spokesperson before Pharaoh, and the one who was appointed by God to make expiation not only for himself and his household, but “for the whole congregation of Israel”, made not a sound.

Why? Ramban says that Aaron had been weeping loudly, but stopped when Moses told him about God’s being “sanctified through those who are nearest to” God. Sforno, similarly, believed that Aaron was comforted in the knowledge that God was sanctified through his sons’ death.

Modern commentators, like Rabbi J. H. Hertz, the late Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, and Professor Baruch A. Levine, of NYU, have written that Aaron had no answer to Moses’ telling him of God’s words, or that he simply resigned himself to God’s decree. Rabbi Gunther Plaut, putting it into rabbinic terms, says that Aaron “acknowledged the justice of the decree.”

But others read more into the word vayidom than simple silence. The Torah rarely remarks on one’s silence and here it didn’t employ the usual word vayishtok. Rabbi Maurice Lamm equates Aaron’s silence with the silence of his dead sons. For Blue Greenberg, vayidom symbolizes “a profound shattering silence, a stunning silence, a shocked silence.” According to her reading of the phrase, Aaron neither accepts the decree, nor does he revolt against it. He simply is dumbstruck! After all, what comfort are words when your children have been taken from you in an instant. Those, like the Greenbergs, who have lost a child, understand this all too well: “And we ourselves were silent, as there were no words we could speak that would make any sense of it.”

Rambam, in the Mishneh Torah instructs us that among the mitzvot we are to observe is the rabbinic commandment “to comfort mourners” (Hilkhot Eivel 14:1). But how does one comfort one who is not yet able to accept our comfort? Shock and disbelief render one numb to external stimuli. We are taught that “[o]n each of the seven days of mourning people come to comfort him” (Hilkhot Eivel 13:2).However, “[t]hey are not permitted to say anything until the mourner opens his mouth first, as it is written: ‘And no one spoke anything to him'” (Hilkhot Eivel 13:3, quoting from Job 4:1). Therefore, when visiting a shiva house, one does not speak to a mourner unless first addressed by the mourner.

Just as Aaron’s silence speaks volumes, so does our silence when comforting those who have experienced a painful loss. Silence can be “the most powerful language of all.” It is our presence, far more than our words, that brings real comfort to those who mourn a loss. Our silence allows those who mourn to emerge from their silence, from their shock, from their shattered life.

Was Aaron’s reaction to the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, as explained by Ramban, Sforno, or even Hertz and Plaut? Or was it pure and utter shock, as described by Blu Greenberg, Abarbanel, or Rabbi Lamm? Can we human beings really understand God’s intentions? If not, how can we offer a rationale for the decree?

Bad things can and do happen to good people. Aaron’s silence, and mourners in a shiva house, attest to that fact and we humans can and should not offer the bereaved explanations which leave one unsatisfied, but rather offer silence – the quiet comfort that radiates from our mere presence.


Rabbi Michael G. Kohn was ordained at the Academy for Jewish Religion and serves as the Rabbi of Temple B’nai Abraham in Meriden, Connecticut.