The Sounds of Silence

Sh'mini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47

Focal Point

Now Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before Adonai alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from Adonai and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of Adonai. Then Moses said to Aaron, "This is what Adonai meant when He said: / Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, / And assert My authority before all the people." / And Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10:1-3)

D'var Torah

What happens when we're caught up in the arbitrariness of life? How do we explain the inexplicable? How do we keep going in the face of it?

In this week's Torah portion, Sh'mini, we read the brief but troubling story of Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron the High Priest, who die young and inexplicably. We are told that when these newly ordained priests made their first attempt to offer sacrifices at the altar in the Holy of Holies, "fire came forth from before Adonai and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of Adonai" (Leviticus 10:2). Why? God offers no explanation. And if the two young men knew, they didn't live to answer. Their uncle Moses offers only a cryptic remark-one that is discussed by the commentators without a consensus being reached. What Moses says can be roughly translated as: "This is what God meant when God said: 'I will be sanctified in them who come near me, and before all the people I will be glorified'" (Leviticus 10:3). When God said this, or what it actually means, is anybody's guess. And Aaron himself, having just witnessed the fiery death of two of his sons, responds with silence.

The traditional commentators offer explanations for these deaths that range from viewing their annihilation as a sign of "divine approval," to calling it a just punishment for the young men's arrogance and wrongdoing.

And Aaron's silence . . . how is it explained? Silence by its very nature is inscrutable and therefore can mean anything-from grief to fear to shock to anger to indifference to approval . . . anything. The Hebrew word that tells us of Aaron's silence-yidom-hints at an explanation. There are any number of words in biblical Hebrew that mean "silent," but the root of the one used in this passage can also mean "wail," as in "groan" or "lament," suggesting that Aaron's silence is from grief, as we might suspect. Perhaps we are wrong to hear it as silence at all; maybe we ought to be hearing Aaron wailing and groaning.

This passage moves Aaron and Moses from a moment of worship and a vision of the glory of God, described in the verses that immediately precede these, to a moment of shocking, unexplained tragedy. And we too experience the sudden change; we too witness God's glory and then see a father watch the unexpected violent death of two sons. Despite its strange plot, real life is once again reflected in Torah: a sudden catastrophe intrudes seemingly from nowhere with no explanation forthcoming.

The Hebrew of this passage and some of its details have echoes in another compelling and cryptic biblical story. In a time of great despair, sought after by enemies, ready to give up on his own life, Elijah, the prophet, goes out to a mountain in search of God. The text tells us: "Adonai passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke the rocks in pieces before God; but God was not in the wind; and after the wind, an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake, a fire; but God was not in the fire; and after the fire, a thin voice of silence [ kol d'mamah dakah]" (I Kings 19:11-12). A more familiar translation of this passage is "a still, small voice." The Hebrew word d'mamah, variously translated as "silence" or "still," comes from the same Hebrew root as Aaron's yidom, "silence" or "lament."

Another important parallel concerns the fire in both stories. The fire that consumed Nadab and Abihu went outmilifnei Adonai, "from before Adonai,"-and they died lifnei Adonai, "before Adonai-" (Leviticus 10:2). One might think from this that God was in that fire. Yet in very similar language in the Elijah story, we are told that the wind broke the rocks into pieces lifnei Adonai, "before Adonai." But in that case, we are specifically told that although the wind was before God, lo varuach Adonai, "Adonai was not in the wind." And God was neither in the earthquake, nor the fire, but presumably God was present achar ha-eish, "after the fire," -kol d'mamah dakah, "in the still, small voice," the thin voice of silence. If we read about Nadab and Abihu in light of Elijah's story, God was not in the fire that burned them up, but rather God came after the fire, in the yidom-the silence or the lament-the still, small voice of their grief-stricken father Aaron.

In the past, before I had the terrible privilege of being with dying people and their loved ones, I felt baffled and battered by this story of Nadab and Abihu. I felt anger and confusion and distress over God's apparent part in the killing and absence later. But once I'd been with the dying and those who love them, I saw this quieter view-the view that suggests that God is in the grieving father, rather than in the murderous fire. So too, in Elijah's encounter, God is in the still, small voice, rather than in the implements of destruction.

It may not be easy to accept that God is in these faint voices, or even silences, rather than in the fire or wind or earthquakes. We may still find ourselves inclined to expect God in the disasters. We may insist on keeping God the "who" that we blame when the bad things happen. Or we may be inclined to assume God is nowhere to be found. But these stories turn those ideas around, suggesting that God is not against us but with us, not an absence but a presence. It is that presence that keeps us from imploding under the crush of despair. These stories tell us that God is not in the catastrophe, but in the stunned or groaning silences of grief that follow-be they Aaron's or our own.

By the Way

  • My father died a good death. He said good-bye to the people he loved and made his wishes known. His end was peaceful and dignified. Yet, even though I knew it was coming, the shock of his death was staggering. The world that I had known was gone and I would never be the same. A friend who lives above the San Andreas Fault in Los Angeles described the feeling as "a private earthquake." (Anita Diamant, Saying Kaddish: How to Comfort the Dying, Bury the Dead, and Mourn as a Jew [New York: Schocken Books, 1998], p. xv)
  • In Brooklyn. On the afternoon of the Sabbath, the rabbi …cites a law: "The blind are required to bless the moon." The blind, even though it is the sighting of the moon that is the occasion for the blessing. I think to myself: This is exactly the predicament of the mourner. He must bless what is wonderful even though he cannot see it. (Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998], pp. 21-22)

Your Guide

  1. How does the Kaddish prayer help mourners grieve?
  2. In what ways do Jewish traditions of mourning help us deal with unexpected tragedy?
  3. How is it that stories of loss suffered by others help us in our own grief?

Rabbi Lisa A. Edwards, Ph.D., is the rabbi at Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), Los Angeles, California.

Reference Materials

Sh’mini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 798-823; Revised Edition, pp. 705-727; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 615-636

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