A Time to Keep Silent: Parsha Shmini

In this week’s Torah portion, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, brought an offering to God. Their offering was an “aish zarah,” a strange fire, which, the Torah says, God did not command them to bring. For reasons that are unclear in the Torah portion, “a fire went out from God and consumed them, and they died before God.” Why did God kill Nadav and Avihu? The rabbis scrambled for reasons.

Medieval scholar, Rashi, said that Nadav and Avihu were punished for their father Aaron’s sin of worshipping the Golden Calf at Mt. Sinai. Other rabbis’ views were documented in Midrash Rabbah. One posited that Nadav and Avihu were killed because they were drunk, referring to a later verse stating that you should not drink at the tabernacle. Others thought Nadav and Avihu were killed because they entered the sanctuary without washing their hands and feet, or that they were killed because they didn’t have children. The root of the word “zarah,” strange, is “zoor,” which can also mean profane. In the same Torah portion, we are commanded to separate the sacred from the profane, a teaching that appears in our Havdalah blessings, when we separate Shabbat from the rest of the week. Some argued that God killed Nadav and Avihu because they brought this strange, profane fire into the tabernacle, into the realm of the sacred. The truth is that none of these reasons justify their deaths.

After Nadav and Avihu died, the Torah says, “veyidom Aharon.” And Aaron was silent. The word sacrifice in Hebrew is korban, which means “to draw near.” Aaron watched his sons make an offering, drawing near to God. And then he watched, helpless, as God burned them to death. For their father, there were no words. There were no answers, or reasons. Aaron, who spoke for Moses when Moses could not find his voice, became voiceless himself. Veyidom Aharon. Aaron was silent.

In traditional communities, when Jews pray the Amidah, our great standing prayer, we pray it in a whisper. There are prayers that are spoken and some that are silent, but this private prayer to God is distinctive. It is whispered because it is based on the prayers of Hannah, who was barren. Hannah ached so desperately for a child that she couldn’t voice her her pleas to God. In Tosefta Brachot, the rabbis said, “Hannah spoke in her heart,” meaning that her lips moved, but sound did not escape them. Another kind of silence in the face of suffering.

This week, one father made his own silence permanent. Jeremy Richman took his own life, seven years after his daughter, Avielle, was murdered in the Sandy Hook massacre. Two survivors of the Parkland shooting also died by suicide this week, within days of each other. Sometimes, like the rabbis, we scramble for reasons when death seems reasonless. Other times, we cry out, or we protest. Sometimes we whisper. Other times, all we can muster is silence.

Why did God kill Nadav and Avihu? Why were so many children murdered in their schools? Why did their loved ones take their own lives, instead of living to tell their children’s stories? There are still no reasons that truly justify their deaths.

In Brachot 7a, the rabbis ask: “What does God pray?” Their answer? God prays, “May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger.” Even God is horrified when God’s wrath outweighs God’s mercy. Even God is devastated by the murdered children, the suicide contagion among the survivors, and by God’s own inability to heal all who need healing.

Sometimes, when we approach God on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, I follow the lead of theologian, David Blumenthal, and I imagine that God asks for our forgiveness too. For those moments when God’s mercy did not outweigh God’s wrath. For Nadav and Avihu. For asking Abraham to sacrifice his son. For gas chambers, school shootings, cancer, and suicides. It’s a day for God to join us in atoning.

For the wrong I have done before you
by allowing my wrath to consume me
,” God prays.

“And for the wrong I have done before you
by allowing my fire to consume the innocent.

For the wrong I have done before you
by separating sacred and profane

And for the wrong I have done before you
because I should have known that everything is sacred.

Shema Yisrael, Listen, My children, My God-Wrestlers,
Pardon Me, Forgive Me, Atone Me,”
God weeps.

I am shema-ing, I am hearing You. But all I can muster for now, dear God, is silence.

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