21/22 April: Shabbat Shemini comes in 7.53 pm, goes out 9.00 pm
This week I found the words of Conservative Rabbi Shai Held interesting and meaningful. Parshat Shemini is difficult in that it relates the story of the sons of Aaron who die after offering up “strange fire” to God.
Following is my edited version of Rabbi Held’s dvar Torah:
“Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the Lord meant when He said: Through those who are near to Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified'” (10:3). Moses appears to be saying that God will demonstrate God’s holiness through the priests, “whether by their cooperation with [God] or, as in the present instance, by punishing them.” How does Aaron respond? The Torah gives us only two words: “Va-yidom Aharon” – meaning, according to the conventional translation, “Aaron was silent” (10:3)
But what if Aaron wasn’t silent at all? Bible scholar Baruch Levine suggests that there are actually two separate meanings to the Biblical Hebrew root d-m-m. The first, more common meaning is “to be still” – and as we have seen, this is how biblical commentators have almost always understood the term va-yidom when applied to Aaron: “And Aaron was silent.” The second, less familiar meaning is “to mourn, to moan.”
On Levine’s interpretation, the Torah tells us that “Aaron reacted in the customary manner; he moaned or wailed and was about to initiate formal mourning and lamentation for his two lost sons.” The whole story now appears in a very different and more subtle light: Aaron moans and cries out because the agony of a father upon the loss of his children is irrepressible. But Moses forbids him and his remaining sons from initiating formal rites of mourning, i.e. bearing their heads and rending their garments. Instead, he assures them, the people will mourn on their behalf (10:6).
How are we to understand Moses’ conduct? Faced with the sudden, shocking, and seemingly inexplicable death of Aaron’s two sons, Moses is at a loss. He turns to his elder brother and offers a theological explanation: “Through those who are near to Me I will show Myself holy, and before all the people I will be glorified.” Aaron’s response is extremely telling: He goes right on mourning. Moses responds by re-affirming a theological truth he believes can help him (and Aaron) make sense of this unendurable turn of events. But Aaron will have none of it.
Implicitly, he reminds Moses – and us – that there are moments when theological explanations, whether compelling on their own terms or not, simply have no place. When a father stares into the abyss and sees two of his children lying dead before him, the first response is not theology but grief. Moses may need to assure himself that his world has not fully fallen apart, but in sharing his explanation of Nadav and Avihu’s death, he fails to make adequate space for Aaron’s utter devastation. So Aaron, rightly, ignores Moses’ words. Emotionally at least, his [reaction] is far wiser than Moses’ speech.
Rabbi Paul Arberman