Aaron’s Silence – Commentary on the Torah Shemini portion
Comments on Torah Portion Shemini 2022
Two young men meet a sudden and tragic death in our Torah portion. The scene is described succinctly:
Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aaron, each took his brazier, put fire in it, and put incense on it, and they offered before Adonai a strange fire, which God had not commanded them.
And fire went out of Adonai and consumed them; thus they died in the presence of Adonai.
Commentators for ages have asked, “Why did Nadav and Avihu concoct a ‘strange fire’?” and “Was that a sufficient reason for them to be slain by God?”
Most modern commentators learn a lesson in leadership. Nadav and Avihu, as sons of the High Priest, had an obligation to perform their duties precisely as they had been taught. They should not be role models of “leaders can do whatever they want”, but rather “leaders follow the rules”.
Most of you readers know that I avoid moralizing on the face of it when it comes to our sacred texts, contrary to the modern emphasis on ethics as a tool of interpretation. I begin by reminding myself that this text of Leviticus 10 is literature, not journalism. The text is not an eyewitness report of what happened, but an author’s literary creation in a specific place and time, with a specific audience, with a specific concern. Literary authors try to tell us something about the world and about ourselves.
I also remember to read the Bible as a philosophical anthropology and not as a theology. The Bible, in my mind, is much less concerned with what God does and is much more concerned with what humans do, especially as they bring about the godliness of the Bible. Biblical writers, I recall, often display an uncanny psychological genius, asking us to look for the motivations for what people do in laconic accounts like this. The Bible is also mythological and archetypal, discussing not what happened then, but what happens all the time. The Bible presents models of existence.
The Bible does not tell us the motives of Nadav and Avihu in bringing their alien fire. For a moment, I want to avoid that question and the inevitable judgmental answers. Let’s leave it at that: at the very least, they made a mistake. They got the ingredients or measurements wrong.
At most, the young men did it on purpose, but didn’t live long enough to tell us why.
The text tells us that they did something wrong. But the text refuses to tell us why it was so bad.
I guess they didn’t predict what would happen next – that a fire would come from God and burn them alive. Maybe it’s a special case, like veering very slightly through the double yellow lines and instead of correcting your course, you hit oncoming traffic. You violate a traffic code that would usually only get you a ticket or a fine.
But sometimes if you cross the double yellow lines you can get killed or kill someone else. When does misconduct become negligent homicide?
The slightest moment of inattention, a mistake that could be considered insignificant, can have catastrophic consequences. We don’t know why these two young men did what they did, whether it was carelessness or rapists. Whatever their mistake or intent, it got them killed.
We, readers, are staged. What happens next?
Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what Adonai meant when he said, ‘By those who are near me I show myself holy and gain glory before all the people.’ And Aaron was silent.
What does it even do mean? Moses tells Aaron that God showed us the holiness of God just now? And gained glory in front of all the people?
If holiness here means “entirely Other” – then yes. An otherness far removed from the human condition of errors and sins. A holiness that is great but can also be awful.
“Winning glory? Does this mean that we readers, through the story of Nadav and Avihu, have run, unconsciously, into a central boundary of God’s glory? Are we told that when we transgress certain things God didn’t even tell us about could we get killed?
Build a Molten Calf? Repentance is possible.
Bring unauthorized incense – okay now you’ve hit the tripwire that’s burning alive.
Whatever else is in this story, they are painful, very upsetting mysteries.
What did these boys do and why did they do it? What was the “strange fire” that caused this reaction from God? What did Moses mean by this statement? I don’t know and for a while I don’t want to find an answer. I can’t think of an adequate moral summation for the story.
The only thing clear to me is “va-yidom Aharon” – “and Aaron was silent.” Two of his children were killed before his eyes. Perhaps Aaron believed he was going to bequeath an incredible legacy to his children, two of whom are now conventing.
I’ll venture this: Aaron didn’t know why it happened, and what his brother had just said about the bodies was worse than meaningless. If Moses has a low point in the Bible, this is it.
I believe that this little piece of literature is there to upset us. As we have seen many times before, the God of the Bible is dangerous and unpredictable. I think we have to avoid for a moment the temptation to explain or to moralize. We should allow ourselves to be shocked and appalled, and then for a moment not understand what these boys did wrong or why God reacted the way God did, but rather think with empathy of the broken heart of Aaron.
“Va-yidomis a dark play on words. It means “and he was silent” and it can also mean “and he bled”. Bloody silence.
A man has just seen two of his sons die suddenly, right before his eyes. He doesn’t want to hear us moralize about what they did. Aaron is stuck – it’s far too late to turn down the job of high priest, even with this new information about what that job entailed.
Moses orders Aaron not to cry – the frankincense oil is still on him. Aaron is still in his role. His personality right now is bigger than the bitter, bleeding grief inside. Every public person has been there – unspeakable suffering within them that must be silent – there is the role, and everyone is a stage.
Like all good literature, this story does not end with the clarity of one of Aesop’s fables. Whatever lessons there are about leadership, they are, in my mind, overshadowed by utter shock, Aaron’s unsanctioned need to break down and cry, his painful realization of what things are, this what does this job mean, clouded by Aaron’s guilt that his two sons might not have been quite fit for the job, but he found them anyway and it killed them.
I think all the moralizing going on about Nadav and Avihu might be an attempt not to face Aaron, not to allow him to finally cry, to crumble in our arms. If we felt his bloody silence, we could feel ours.