This week’s Torah portion, Shemini, is disturbing. Two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, take into the tabernacle an unwanted sacrifice of strange fire, and G-d strikes them dead. Moses tells Aaron that their deaths were not only G-d’s will, but really what G-d wanted, and had said would be. Then Moses tells Aaron and his two remaining sons, Eliezer and Itamar, not to mourn for their recently deceased loved ones. And Aaron is silent. It is obviously tragic that Nadav and Avihu die. It is also upsetting that Moses’s response is so callous, and curious that Aaron is silent.
When tragedy strikes, it is hard to know how to respond properly. A first instinct is to try to make sense of it and in a situation that is truly senseless, a rationalizing response (“This is what the Lord spoke”) could come out as offensive, even if that isn’t the intent. Similarly, it is hard to see those you love in pain, and another instinct might be to say, “Don’t cry, don’t be sad, let me help you move on.” Actually, it is good to cry and be sad sometimes. People need time to sit with their feelings and grieve before they can really move on in a healthy way. This is not only true after death, by the way. There are many types of loss, and even something which seems trivial to one person, may actually be really hurtful to another person. I try really hard not to get too attached to things, and if something were to happen to my Kindle Fire, I would probably try to pretend it was not a big deal. After all, it’s just a thing; it’s not anything like a death. In actuality, I would be devastated deep down about the loss not only of my device, but all the materials I have saved on it! It is okay to accept and express feelings of loss even over things that may seem silly. It is necessary to let your feelings out in order to healthily move on.
However, in times of grief or extreme stress, there may be a tendency to lash out, and that is no good. We want to express our feelings, but we should be careful to express truthful feelings, and not simply lash out and project or be hurtful to those we think can handle it. Moses shares words with Aaron and his remaining sons that I think he means to be helpful. They sound not really so helpful. It would be understandable for Aaron to snap and tell Moses to shut up, but that would also be not really so helpful. It could damage Aaron and Moses’s relationship, which could mean losing a supportive family member (or at least a family member trying to be supportive), and actually make the healing process harder. Instead Aaron just remains silent. He accepts Moses’s advice, and understands Moses’s intent, and continues on with his duties. According to the Midrash Rabbah, it is as a reward for his holding his tongue that Aaron is able to actually have a one-on-one conversation with G-d in chapter 9, verses 8-11 (distinct from the rest of the Torah, where G-d speaks only to Moses or occasionally to Moses and Aaron together). Rabbi Nachman of Breslav said, “In youth, one learns to talk; in maturity, one learns to be silent.” It is not an easy lesson to learn, or an easy value to remember, but sometimes, silence is golden.
I pray that you all have easy lives, with little tragedy, easy relationships, and an honest heart. However, life is not always easy, there are occasional tragedies for everyone, some relationships are difficult, and even the most honest person must learn what truths are better held close to one’s heart. When you find yourself in such a situation, may you remember Aaron’s silence, and keep to the old adage: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.