This week’s section may be one of the Torah’s most emotionally difficult to read. Called Parashat Shimini, you will find it in the Book of Leviticus 9:1-11:47. It deals with the mysterious death of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, and their father’s, Aaron’s reaction to their deaths. Nothing in this week’s section is easy to comprehend. It is a section filled with enigmas wrapped in uncertainties. The text is terse and for a subject as sensitive as this, we cannot help but wonder why the text uses an almost matter-of-fact style. It is as if the text is teaching us that death is a part of life and that to deny it, is to deny life itself.
The week’s section revolves around the fact that during the inauguration of the Mishcan (Tabernacle) Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, “brought forth/offered a strange fire before G-d, which was not what (G’d) commanded them (to do/was against G’d’s desire)”. The original Hebrew reads in a is both terse and stated without emotions: “Yakrivu lifne Ha’Shem esh zarah asher lo tzivah otam”.
As is so often the case, the text’s silence teaches as much as do its words. It is in the silent unanswered questions that the text forces us to deal with our own feelings and emotions. We have no idea about Nadav and Avihu’s mother’s feelings. As in the case of the Akedah (the almost sacrifice of Isaac) once again the mother is absent from the text. Also as if to parallel Abraham at Mt. Moriah, Aaron is silent in the face of tragedy. This silence is not new for Aaron. In the case of the Golden Calf, we know that Aaron chose silence. Is his silence a sign of strength or weakness? Is Aaron’s silence teaching us that there are times when the pain is so great that silence is preferable to words? On the other hand, can we heal from silence? Faced with another’s pain do we at times say things, not to aid the mourner but rather to make ourselves feel better? The text never tells us the reason for Aaron’s silence, but merely that he is silent.
These questions lead to other philosophical problems. For example, What angered G’d so much that He chose to take these boy’s lives? Is the text teaching us that to live is to know death? How does the story of Aaron’s sons’ deaths differ from other Biblical tales of death? Is the text teaching us that to face death we must first find the strength to sanctify life? These questions lead us to still other questions. Was Aaron right in maintaining silence in the face of his sons’ deaths? Should he have cried out? Is there a proper “should’? Perhaps the text is teaching us that there is no proper way to mourn; that there is no one “should”. One person’s cries may be another’s silence.
One possibility is that Aaron’s reaction teaches us that in the face of overwhelming tragedy there are times when silence speaks more eloquently than do words. On the other hand, to keep silent might not only lead to misinterpretation but also might be an excuse for inaction. Perhaps the text is teaching us that each of us heals in our own way, that there is no one magic formula, and that we need to be sensitive to the mourner’s needs. To paraphrase Kohelet (Ecclesiastes): there is a time to speak and a time to be silent.
This week’s parashah emphasizes that none of us ever knows another’s pain, that we must be careful to listen and not to project our own needs and feelings on the other. Parashat Shmini leaves us with many more questions than answers, but then perhaps the parashah’s message is that answers are often found within the questions. Might this be true in this highly emotional section told in the most matter-of-fact way? What do you think?
Youtubes of the week:
Three versions of the Passover Favorite: Chad Gadya
In Hebrew/Aramaic with English subtitles:
In Spanish (Ladino):
The choir version: