The Theology of Silence
Rabbi Nicole Roberts
North Shore Temple Emanuel
Chatswood, New South Wales
In Parshat Shemini, we are presented with Aaron’s unfathomable silence in the wake of his two sons’ premature death. What does his silence mean? How did our sages understand such a seemingly passive, unfeeling response to this heartbreaking tragedy? Were they troubled by it, and are their explanations satisfying to the modern mind and spirit?
The sages were indeed troubled enough to comment extensively on the events of parshat Shemini. However, they chose to redeem Aaron, rather than critique him. Their opinions differed as to whether the sons, Nadav and Avihu, were honorable[i] or sinful,[ii] but the sages nevertheless held that the sons’ death was undeniably—even cosmically—sad. “Aaron was sad at heart on account of his sons’ death,” says Leviticus Rabbah. In Midrash Tanhuma we read that Aaron and his sons observed a period of mourning in anticipation of the death of Nadav and Avihu when confined to the Tent of Meeting for seven days before their consecration—a period likened to the seven days of mourning that God observed before the flood that destroyed the earth. In Pesikta d’Rav Kahana, we learn that God Himself grieved the loss of Aaron’s sons, as He was present “as a Mourner” when the sons died and His presence remained in the Tabernacle even after their bodies were taken away. Given that Aaron had every reason to cry out in anguish and protest, the sages find his silence admirable. Aaron is silent in deference to the justice of the Divine decree,[iii] they say, for which he is rewarded by God[iv] and likened by the sages to Abraham, Jacob, and David, other heroes of our tradition who also accepted upon themselves the justice of the Divine decree (at Sodom, upon reunion with Esau, and in Psalm 38, respectively).[v] Silence, in the eyes of our sages, represents the control of one’s emotions… for the sake of Heaven.
While Aaron’s self-control may have seemed honorable to the sages, it nevertheless strikes many a modern soul as inhuman, foreign, and unforgivable. One particularly poignant response to Aaron’s silence in Shemini is that of Elie Wiesel, who says of Aaron: “A father, whatever be his role, whatever be his public functions, cannot, must not, accept calmly, in faith and resignation, the sudden death of his two sons!”[vi] Wiesel continues, “Is there for a man or woman a greater misfortune than to bury his children? This is against nature… Why is war the worst of the troubles? Because it denies the laws of nature.” Wiesel finds something chillingly unnatural and inhuman in Aaron’s silence, in that when Aaron is silent, he becomes his role, the High Priest whose ultimate loyalty is to God and not to man—even when that “man” is his own offspring. In silence, suggests Wiesel, Aaron becomes complicit—a silent accomplice to the unjust fate that the God whom he serves allows to befall his sons. In contrast to the sages, Wiesel excuses neither Aaron nor God. “Vayidom Aharon. And Aaron the father remained silent. Like God. For God.”
Wiesel draws connections between the events of Shemini and the tragedies of the Shoah. “This tragedy of Nadav and Avihu, one incorporates with others equally overwhelming, personal and collective,” he writes. Both this biblical tragedy and our own are one. Thus, we share a certain shame and guilt along with Aaron, Wiesel suggests, concluding: “Aaron was silent….[a]nd all that we, his disciples, can do is join our silence to his, or better yet: faced with a silence born of such a tragedy, of such a sum of sufferings, we cannot but interrogate ourselves in interrogating him.” Silence, to Wiesel, represents complicity.
Silence, if we listen carefully, can “speak” volumes about theology and its changes over time. To Wiesel and to the sages, Aaron’s silence allies him, in a sense, with God. The God of the sages is a trusted, just God, who mourns with Israel and merits Aaron’s deference. Wiesel’s God, on the other hand, is silent in the face of tragedy, leaving us to wonder whether He is indeed just and worthy of our loyalty, submissive deference, and emulation. The God of the sages is worthy of reconciliation; Wiesel’s God… of interrogation.