Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47
This is a Shabbat of stark contrast (at least in comparison to the festival of Passover, which we just concluded – I hope – with joy). In my last blog, I wrote about how Passover includes three things we love more than anything else: home hospitality, good food, and storytelling. However, we don’t just tell stories at our seders, we talk – a lot! Passover, without question, is among our most social holidays. Shemini, by contrast, is marked by silence. To put it in more contemporary terms, we now find ourselves in the midst of the transition between the “unmute” and “mute” settings of our spiritual lives.
We know why we talk during Passover. Why is Shemini characterized by silence? The story is not an easy one. Shemini describes what should have been a time of great rejoicing for Israel. After months of hard work and careful preparation, the time has come for the final dedication of the mishkan – the tented sanctuary where God would dwell in the midst of the people in the Wilderness. All of Israel is present to witness this remarkable beginning, holding their breath in the hope that God would accept their offerings and inhabit the mishkan.
At first everything not only goes well, but quite frankly, is the stuff of legend. Aaron offers a sin offering for himself and his family, and then proceeds to bless the people that their offerings will be acceptable to heaven. Then, miraculously, God’s glory is revealed to all as the people’s offering is consumed on the altar by a bolt of flame from heaven.
If only the story stopped there.
Two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, decided on the spot to improvise their own incense offerings. The Torah does not share their reasons but is clear that this was not part of the scripted ceremony, and as such, was unwelcome and deeply problematic. How do we know this? They, like the offering of the Israelites, are also consumed by fire from heaven.
Can you imagine?
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell writes:
“Aaron has no response – he is silent. What can he say? In that single moment, his hopes and dreams for his family working together to create holiness, his hopes and dreams are destroyed. The intensity of his joy is undone in a crashing moment of sorrow and despair.”
This is a story Aaron does not want to tell – or hear. His grief is complete. There is no room for words in this moment.
If only the story stopped there.
Moses, seemingly caught up entirely in the continuing act of consecrating the mishkan, instead of expressing his own grief or offering condolences to his brother, actually chastised Aaron for not completing the prescribed ritual and prohibited Aaron and his family from observing the traditional rites of mourning. How could Moses do such a thing? Aaron, normally a steady level headed person, let his brother Moses have a piece of his mind.
What did Moses do?
He responded with silence: the silence of assent. Moses heard Aaron’s words and his pain, and his own insensitivity in asking the unthinkable. Like Aaron, Moses could only respond with silence.
In the midst of our own struggles today, we might remember this lesson. As much as we might wish to have something helpful to say, sometimes, there are just no words …
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras