In this week’s Torah portion, Shemini, we read of the death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu. Moses reaches out to his brother in words of comfort. Aaron’s response? “Vayidom–and Aaron was silent.”
Traditional Torah commentators try to understand the situation–what caused Nadav and Avihu’s deaths (the Torah tell us it was an act of God as a punishment for their having offered “strange fire”), and why Aaron responds with silence.
Commentaries range from Rashi (Aaron could blame God or say something in anger that he would later regret, so he remains silent and accepts the loss without protest) to the great medieval Italian commentor Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (“And Aaron was silent, comforting himself [in the thought] that God was sanctified through their death”).
Something happened to me this week that suggested another explanation for Aaron’s silence.
A congregant’s father had died and I met with her to discuss the funeral. She was calm and poised, speaking lovingly but dispassionately about him as I gathered information for the eulogy.
As we concluded our time together, I mentioned to her what I remind all mourners: don’t wonder about your emotions–questioning why you’re crying too much or too little. Our mind is blessed with an anesthetic, enabling us to absorb the shock of death or loss in increments as we are able to withstand it.
It was then that she began to weep. “Thank you, Rabbi,” she said, “I’ve been feeling guilty that I’m not more of a basket case. I loved my father deeply, and was sure that his passing would so tear me up that I would be unable to function. I had friends ready to call relatives back East to give them the information of the death, so sure was I that I would be unable to keep my composure long enough to get the words out. But that wasn’t happening. I even made the calls myself, without emotion. And that’s why your words are so comforting. Now I know that the level of my grief has nothing to do with my sense of loss.”
Perhaps this is why Aaron was silent. His mind was letting the reality of the death of his sons in slowly. Grief will come as Aaron would be able to withstand the pain.
For now, numbing silence.
-Rabbi David Vorspan, Rabbi-in-Residence