This week we will be reading from parashat Shemini. It begins with the ordination of Aaron and his sons through rituals performed as part of the sacrificial cult. This is immediately followed by a very brief, but very challenging story that is just three short verses: “Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Eternal alien fire, which had not been enjoined upon them. Fire came forth from the Eternal and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Eternal. Then Moses said to Aaron, “this is what the Eternal meant by saying: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy. And gain glory before all the people.” And vayidom Aharon, Aaron was silent.”1 We are left wondering, why was Aaron, who was the spokesperson for Moses, who was so central in the sacrificial cult, unable to speak?
As one commentator wrote, “We do know that silence/Shtikah is a middah, one of the traits of character associated with guarded or careful speech, or Shmirat Halashon. As a general teaching, not necessarily in connection to a reaction to sudden and unexpected personal tragedy, the classic Mussar treatise called Cheshbon Hanefesh has these cautionary words on how we should employ our speech and our silence:
Before you open your mouth, be silent and reflect: What benefit will my speech bring me or others? . . . The regimen of discipline for this trait is to free your mind to deliberate before speaking … If you are tempted to say something frivolous, condition yourself to swallow your words. As King David said proudly to himself (Psalms 17:3) “My thought did not leave my mouth.” And as our sages said (Tanna D’bei Eliyahu), “Think before you speak.’”1
We are living in a time of multiple tragedies especially from the ongoing pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine. Though there are certainly many others great and small as well including those perpetrated against minorities such as ourselves and the LGBTQ+ community just to name a few.
And yet, vayidom Aharon, and Aaron was silent. This does not mean that we should be silent in the face of tragedy. Instead, what the Torah is teaching is that learning, and understanding can lead to wisdom, which then leads to proper action. Silence is only problematic if that is the final action, not the first. It is human to be overwhelmed, just as it is Jewish to then work through it and begin to respond.
Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff
1 Exodus 10:1-3