26 Nissan 5773 / April 5-6, 2013
In this week's portion, Shemini, we find Aaron and his sons concluding their weeklong celebration anointing them as the nation's priests. As we read this week, their first day on the job was anything but smooth. Two of Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, are killed by Divine strike-down for lighting "alien fire." The rabbis struggle with what exactly their sin was, with many suggesting that they attempted to do their job while drunk. Aaron, when hearing the news of their deaths, remains silent, and is instructed to not mourn their loss publicly.
Considering that Aaron has been Moses's spokesperson since they first approached Pharaoh in Egypt, it's quite powerful to learn of Aaron's silence. Perhaps he was in shock? Perhaps he was giving his brother (and God) the silent treatment? It seems a lot to ask a father not to grieve...
Later in the portion, we find Aaron's other sons Elazar and Itamar making a mistake as it relates to where they eat the special sacrificial portion dedicated for the priests. Moses confronts and chastises them.
I can't help but feel for Aaron in this situation. Your brother is a pretty big deal - the prophet credited with leading the nation out of bondage in Egypt. You're in a new job as the High Priest of the nation. And yet, you have no control over anything going on. Two of your sons are killed due to their ticking God off. The other two are now chastised by your brother for improper conduct. All of this takes place despite your supposed leadership role in overseeing your sons, the priests, and all of this takes place your first real day on the job.
It seems palatable that perhaps Aaron was so overwhelmed and out of his element that shutting down to the outside world and remaining silent was really the only way he could handle the situation without resorting to destructive behavior. We find no open rebellion or complaint by him at all. I have to imagine, however, that whatever excitement or zeal he my have initially brought to his duties, that they were significantly tempered. How could he possibly remain excited to continue in a job he obviously had suffered such initial setbacks in? It leads me to wonder: what is the true power of the human spirit?
Many of us encounter situations where we don't really know what to say or how to respond, such as the death of a friend's parent, witnessing a terrible car crash, or being humiliated at work by a boss. What we can and should learn from Aaron is that our tradition makes space for silence, and at times, even encourages it.
There are definitely times when we, as people, determine that remaining silent seems a much better choice than trying to respond in some way (or trying to figure out how to respond) to a situation, and there are also times when we shut down and are unable to respond out of shock. And it's okay. Really.
Aaron, the spokesman for our nation, remained silent. I promise you that when appropriate, we have the permission to do so as well.
This Shabbat, make the time to listen. Resist the urge to immediately respond verbally to the situations you encounter. Recognize that sometimes silence is indeed golden, and that saying nothing is often better than saying anything at all.