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Friday, April 01, 2005

Shemini - The Sound of Silence

ויאמר משה אל אהרן: הוא אשר דבר ה' לאמר, בקרובי אקדש ועל פני כל העם אכבד. וידם אהרן

(ויקרא י', ג')

Picture the moment: The mishkan is ready and the week-long inauguration ceremonies are reaching their climax on the eighth day. And in the middle of all the celebrations, Aharon's sons enter the tabernacle to perform a ritual service with their fire-pans and as a result of this expression of servitude to God, they meet their death.

Moshe tries to console his brother for the death of his two sons:

Then Moshe said unto Aharon: "This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified." And Aharon held his peace.

(VaYikra 10, 3)

Aharon's reaction to Moshe's words are silence. The Hebrew vayidom is irregular in this usage and a more appropriate verb would have been vayishtok, he was quiet. Vayidom expresses more than silence; it expresses total submission, no reaction of any kind. The Hebrew word for inanimate objects - the lowest rung in the categorisation of nature (humans, animals, plants, inanimate objects) - is domem. Aharon's reaction was that of an object. In face of tragedy, he did not mourn as a human would, he did not cry out as an animal would and he did not even wilt as a plant would. He was completely domem.

Perhaps we can learn something from this sound of silence by looking at the rest of this week's parasha. The story of the tragedy of Aharon is one of the two main topics in Shemini, the other being the laws of kashrut regarding animals we are allowed and not allowed to eat. Both topics relate to discipline and acceptance. Aharon's silence represents the total acceptance of God's will and the understanding that we humans are unable to comprehend fully the terrible mysteries and tragedies of human existence. There are many events in our lives that we have no control over - death of a relative being perhaps the most tragic - and silence is one way in which we can discipline ourselves to submit to the will of God.

The same goes for the laws of kashrut. To be able to control our eating habits based on religious principles which are sometimes not fully understandable to us, is a matter of discipline. We are witness to many people who do not follow the laws of kashrut and yet seem to lead perfectly healthy lives. And yet we understand that the reason we keep kashrut laws is not health or other tangible benefits but rather the acceptance of the will of God. Like the silence in face of tragedy, our faith in keeping the dietary laws dictated by the Torah is a matter of discipline and submission to God's will.

This week a good friend of mine lost his mother. Aharon's silence relates also to one of the laws of Shiva. Many people come to visit the mourners during this week, offering their condolences trying to provide whatever comfort is possible. Sometimes they engage the mourners in conversation about this and that, thinking that by doing so they are helping them to take their mind of things. But oftentimes the mourner wishes to just sit quietly and be comforted by silence and not by words. The Halacha says that the visitor should take cue from the mourner and refrain from engaging in unnecessary conversation if silence is more appropriate. We often do not feel at ease with silence and feel the urge to put an end to the awkwardness of quiet. The Halacha tells us to overcome this urge and be more sensitive, to follow the example of Aharon and be silent.

In memory of my friend Amnon's mother, Rut bat Reuven HaCohen, z"l.

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