On the eighth day after the commencement of the consecration of Aaron and his sons as priests, Moses summons his brother and nephews to complete the ritual. Aaron is to present various offerings, after which Moses tells him, “Adonai will appear to you” (Lev. 9:4). At the end of the ritual, Moses and Aaron come out of the Tent of Meeting and bless the people, at which point, “the Presence of Adonai appeared to all the people” (Lev. 9:23). The people “saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces” (Lev. 11:24) in awe of what they have seen. Aaron and his sons have inaugurated their work as priests, God has endorsed their work, and the people are impressed. A perfect end to a perfect day.
Then, suddenly, “[Two of] Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu…took up their fire pans and offered before God foreign fire, which had not been commanded…And fire came forth from Go and consumed them; thus they died…Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what Adonai meant by saying: Through those near to me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.’ And Aaron was silent” (Lev. 10:1-3).
The Torah doesn’t tell us why the Aaron’s priestly sons’ lives ended tragically. There are many possibilities but few answers regarding what went wrong. The early rabbis struggled to explain the strange and sudden deaths of Nadav and Avihu. Their interpretations fall into two camps: One view focuses on the sins that might explain their deaths, while the other portrays them as righteous individuals whose death cannot be explained.
One midrash from Sifra, Mekhilta d’Milu’im 21 links their fate to Exodus 24:9 — “Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Avihu, and the seventy elders ascended [Mount Sinai].” This midrash imagines Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, resentful of their position relative to that of their uncle and father, saying, “Someday, these two old men will die and we will lead the people,” suggesting that their impatience and disrespect for their elders led to their death.
Another midrash in the same collection criticizes Nadav and Avihu for showing disrespect to Aaron and failing to consult with Moses before making their offering. Responding, perhaps, to the apparent severity of their punishment, another midrash (Leviticus Rabbah Aharei Mot 20:9) claims that Nadav and Avihu had committed multiple sins, each of which was punishable by death: They entered the sanctum drunk, improperly dressed, and without washing their hands and feet. We are also told (ibid. 20:10) that Nadav and Avihu had avoided marriage, because they thought no woman was worthy of them given their exalted lineage.
Their deaths remain a mystery. Yet, an even greater mystery ensues in Aaron’s response to Moses immediately following his sons’ demise: Vayidom – he was silent. It’s unimaginable that in the face of this double tragedy, the loss of two children and great men in their own right that Aaron’s response was silence. You would expect a shocked and heartbroken parent to say something after these sudden deaths, or, at the very least, to show some sign of grief.
How do we interpret Aaron’s silence?
King Solomon, the attributed author of the Book of Ecclesiates exclaims there “Be not rash with your mouth, and let your heart not be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you are on the earth; therefore, let your words be few.” Solomon may be deferring to humility in face of the Divine, but surely has not experienced as yet the utter pain and loss of one’s own children.
The Talmud (Zevachim)also asks how Aaron was able to remain still. It couldn’t be that he was uniquely stoic and unemotional. Aaron is characterized as the one who loved and pursued peace – ohev shalom v’rodef shalom, who loved people and brought them close. Perhaps Aaron, as the peacemaker, prioritized his people and his community over his personal grief. At this epic moment of the culmination of the building of the Mishkan, the sanctuary, and God’s dwelling in the midst of all Israel, tragedy struck and Aaron was in the epicenter of that disaster. It was the highest of heights and the lowest of depths at the same time. Nothing could make it better and the only thing that could make it worse would be – saying anything. Sometimes the most profound thing we can say and the safest thing to say is nothing.
Midrash Tanhuma defends Aaron, pointing to Moses’ words as so wise and compassionate as to render Aaron speechless, – that is, the pronouncement that the sons’ death had elevated God’s holiness. As painful as it might be to read commentary trying to justify the death of the two young men, understanding their deaths as a confirmation of their sanctity before God, and Aaron’s acceptance of this quid pro quo are equally unsatisfying. Even the sages behind these explanations cannot offer a cogent reason why the inauguration of the sanctuary requires human deaths. In sympathy, we know that there is a sincere human need to offer answers when none offer a shred of comfort in the face of incomprehensible death.
Nachmanides in the Middle Ages understood that Aaron first cried and wailed and then, entirely drained, fell silent.
Malbim, a 19th-century rabbinic commentator explains that the Hebrew verb, vayidom – “and he was silent,” is different from other expressions of quietude. This term means that Aaron interrupted his own speaking and became quiet. He stopped himself from speaking. Malbim suggests there is actually a missing monologue, more than a cry. From the perspective of a biblical theology, Malbim suggests that Aaron’s monologue here spoke of his past misdeeds, and specifically the sin of the Golden Calf, which had finally come to haunt him. Moses then comforted and quieted him by telling him that they died because of their greatness and closeness to God. When Aaron understood this message he was quiet. To our modern sensibilities this is a theodicy that is too hard to swallow!
Silence is golden when we choose to be silent or when we intuitively know through empathy that our speech, whether in private or in public, is more harmful than our silence, as in slander, defamation, untruths, verbal abuse, and even calling out someone who is wrong or vulnerable embarrasses, shames, and dehumanizes. That said, the obligation to speak up in order to prevent more harm outweighs the obligation to be silent and avoid shaming others in public.
Moreover, our tradition teaches that there is a default silence Sometimes we just don’t know what to say. We admit to ourselves that we are stuck and without answers and with utter honesty, engender a silence. Sometimes we understand more than we can articulate in mere words and we are stricken dumb from profound awe.
The most honest and believable response to the death of Nadav and Avihu comes from Aaron. The bereaved father, whose triumphant ascension to the high priesthood has been forever marred by the death of two of his children, is silent. He does not rail against God, but neither does he affirm Moses’ suggestion that his sons’ deaths contributed to God’s holiness or glory.
Many of the commentators claim that Aaron’s silence should be read as an acceptance of the Divine decree. I would rather think that Aaron is embracing his entire world in this moment of silence. He is a father, and also, a leader among Israel. He must be asking himself how he and his remaining sons can approach their priestly duties with two members of their family dead at God’s hand? How can he leave the Tent of Meeting at the end of the consecration rituals and go home to the rest of his family members and explain what has happened? How can he work with his brother after Moses offers him such cold comfort for the loss of his children?
Contemporary Torah teacher, Rabbi Micah Streiffer, strikes at the heart of Aaron’s silence, which is actually an invitation for us to go from silence to speech, from kol d’mama daka – the whispering voice of God, to kolot har Sinai – the thunderous voice of God on Mt. Sinai. This week, Rabbi Streiffer reflects on the Louisville bank shooting and the Nashville mass shooting and the continuing epidemic of gun violence, mostly involving children – children being sacrificed upon the society’s unwillingness to change. He addresses Aaron directly with “Why are you silent and why aren’t you speaking up about what happened, that you lost your children?” He first offers the answer that also comes to me first. In compassion, we must allow Aaron his pain and his silence – there is nothing to say in his overwhelming loss. Maybe silence makes sense when we cannot make sense of such a tragic personal loss. But it doesn’t make sense in a societal way. What is happening in American society is not a mystery – it demands that people stand up and say aloud that something needs to be changed, demands activism, not silence. To Streiffer, Aaron decided to do something other than be silent with his emotions. The only way there could be holiness in this tragedy is if it leads to change. When the sage Hillel in Pirkei Avot 1:4 writes: “Be like the disciples of Aaron – love peace and pursue peace.” He is giving ethical advice on how to go through life, based on Aaron’s mission to bring about peace. Streiffer sees Aaron’s mission as the result of having witnessed the death of his two sons. And that activism brewed through his silence. Through his silence, Aaron took on the mission to change the things that brought about the death of his sons.
Look around, says Streiffer. The only way to make sense of all the deaths, especially those of children who have grieving parents like Aaron, is for those deaths to spur activism and change. We cannot have peace when assault weapons are on the street and when children do not feel safe going to school.
We can learn from Aaron’s silence not debilitating grief, meekness, submission, and resignation, but rather strength to face and embrace our losses, to envision and actively work towards a better future for ourselves and our children.