The Aftermath (Sermon for the Poway Chabad Synagogue)
Parashat Acharei Mot 2019
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
‘Vayidom Aharon’ – ‘and Aaron was silent’.
Thus the Torah tells us, three parshiyot ago, before Parashat Tazria, Metzora and even our Parashah today, Acharei Mot. In Parashat Shemini, we read the chilling account of the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. In a cryptic incident, they offer ‘aish zarah’, ‘alien fire’ upon the altar. Many commentators condemn them for defiling the newly-inaugurated Tabernacle through an unaccounted offering. Some commentators, like the Ohr haChaim, praise their initiative of religious enthusiasm and devotion.
Be what may, God strikes the two young Priests down. Moses offers a strange response to the tragedy: “This is what the Eternal meant when God said, ‘through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people’.” (Lev. 10:3)
Was Moses offering words of consolation or criticism? Was he channelings God’s condemnation or approval of the ‘aish zarah’, the strange fire? The text isn’t clear and the question of Nadav and Avihu’s Kiddush Hashem, martyrdom, stands unresolved. All we know is that Aaron was silent.
Silence. Perhaps muted, perhaps burning. I suspect many of us have struggled to find the words this past week, in light of the Poway synagogue shooting.
Like an alternative Omer counting, we count – seven days already; the week of Shivah – since a White Supremacist gunman entered the community at prayer and emptied his gun upon the congregation. We mourn the loss of Lori Gilbert-Kaye, zichronah kedushah livrachah, who died Kiddush Hashem, for the sanctification of God’s Name, martyred.
Silence. Upon hearing the news, I felt something different from what I felt at the Pittsburgh shooting. I had felt hot rage and steadfast determination. It was a new sensation, being confronted with the possibility of death in the nation that has, for the most part, treated its Jewish community well. This time I again felt rage, but I felt something else too: numbness and resignation. A loss for words, and a desire to retreat into silence. A morbid thought occurred to me, this relative newcomer to the United States: ‘this will keep on happening again and again.’ It is a thought familiar in the wake of every shooting or terrorist attack. A thought familiar to those who have lived through school shootings and massacres at houses of worship. Now synagogues can be added to this ignoble list.
‘Vayidom Aharon’ – and Aaron is silent.
It is strange that Moses spoke and Aaron held his tongue. After all, it was Moses who struggled with speech. It was Moses who was fearful of appearing before Pharaoh lest he could not find the words. It was Moses who was ‘heavy of tongue’. Aaron, presumably in league with Miriam, was the older sibling: the one rooting for Moses and coaching him. It was Aaron who, at crucial moments, did find the words. But not now.
We turn the pages, jumping from Shemini to Acharei Mot. This week’s Parashah deals with the aftermath of the death of Nadav and Avihu. Stepping away from ritual law to process this death in the sparsest of language, we get a mere three verses to work through what this all meant. ‘Acharei mot sh’nei b’nei Aharon bekorvatam lifnei Adonai vayamutu’ – ‘after the death of the two sons of Aaron who drew close to the Eternal and died.’ The Etz Haim chumash translates this as ‘drew too close to the presence of the Lord.’ While the emphatic ‘too’ is implied in the narrative, it is never made explicit in the Hebrew syntax. In short, it’s an interpretative choice, hearkening back to the makhloket, the interpretative disagreement, over the virtue or failing of both young men and we are left wondering whether the Torah is purposely insensitive.
In any case, Aaron remains silent yet again. We can imagine he is paralyzed with grief. He doesn’t know what to do or say. He has lost his footing and the only mooring he can find in the face of indescribable trauma, is his adherence to the commandments; anchoring himself in the rhythms of tradition, in the grounding of his Jewishness. Perhaps his mourning is profoundly Jewish. There are no theological pronouncements, no promises of ‘a better life in Heaven’, no clichés of ‘God calling home His angels’. What remains is community and a choice to choose life. The context for the narrative is that the incidents of Shemini happened, as the name of the Parashah suggests, on the eighth day. In this case, the eighth day of the inauguration of the Tabernacle.
Fresh, full of hope, the Priesthood prepared for Divine service before catastrophe unfolded. In Acharei Mot, we pick up where we left off and actually learn a remarkable and jarring truth: it is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The Unetaneh Tokef’s words ring clearly in our souls: ‘Mi ba’aish, mi ba’mayim’, ‘who by fire and who by water’.
Vayidom Aharon. And Aaron was silent.
What can we say in the face of such immense tragedy and horror? How are we meant to respond to the shifting of the light, the growing of the shadows? Pundits and politicians are bound to respond as they always do, soliciting ‘thoughts and prayers’. And us? I have had enough of ‘thoughts and prayers.’ Enough of people at prayer, or children at learning or play, being murdered in cold blood. Whether it is New Zealand or Sri Lanka, Pittsburgh of Poway, Columbine or Parkland. Enough of the cruel historical resonance that these events trigger in our Jewish soul. Enough of the increasing bigotry, racism and anti-Semitism. Enough of contemplating our own vulnerability as a Jewish community.
The text describes the rituals of the Day of Atonement that we know so well from the Avodah service. The offerings, the white garments of the High Priest, the sending away of Azazel, the scapegoat, into the wilderness. The atonement for our people’s sins.
On Yom Kippur, we strive to bring it all, in the full complexity of the day. Our pain, our fear, our anger, our humility. Perhaps even our gratitude and our hope. The day itself is a crucible for all these holy korbanot, offerings, as we strive to come close to God.
And today? There are no easy answers or clear-cut responses. Aaron’s silence is our own. It is not the silence of inadequacy – it is the silence of space. Of allowing ourselves to process what is happening to our communities and to our souls and to the soul of this nation. It is a pregnant silence, rich in potential, brimming in contradiction, before it births a new reality of being Jewish in America.
For now, we are safe. We are taking measures to protect ourselves and other vulnerable communities. We are building bridges, cementing cross-communal solidarity. We feel love from our Christian and Muslim siblings. We are doubling down on our Torah values. We remain steadfast in our welcoming and uncompromising in our Jewishness. All these things are true. We will continue to do what we have always done; Am Yisrael chai, for the Jewish people live. And yet, at the same time, we welcome the reprieve from trying to figure it all out. Right now, we are in holy community, with the people we love and trust, held by God’s mercy and steeled by our own resolve.
May the silence – and the words emerging out from it – bring us comfort, bring us wholeness, and bring the world entire, peace.