Parshat Shemini (5770)

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In the course of life sometimes startling and shocking events take place. Some might be close at hand, affecting people we know. Yet we learn how to respond to such tragedies from our sacred Torah, which tells of events happening thousands of years ago, and of responses which are eternally relevant.

In this week’s Torah reading (Leviticus chapters 9-11) a very unexpected and tragic event is described. At the moment of the final consecration of the Sanctuary, two of Aaron’s sons were killed.

Without consulting Moses, they let themselves be overcome by their enthusiasm and had come too close to the infinite power of the Divine which was revealed in the Holy of Holies. In effect, they died as a result of their own unbridled ecstasy.

The Torah portion describes how Moses comforted Aaron, and that Aaron accepted what had happened: “And Aaron was silent” (Leviticus 10:3).

The power to be silent at certain moments of life and of history is an important strength. It expresses the awareness that G-d is Infinite, and cannot be encapsulated in our human conceptions of what should take place.

Language, speech, signifies comprehensibility. Melody is beyond language, expressing moods which words cannot describe; and silence is yet higher.

The Talmud tells of a case when Moses himself was told by G-d to be silent. G-d showed him in a vision all future generations of the Jewish people, and the leaders of each generation. Moses was greatly impressed by the wisdom of Rabbi Akiva. Then he saw the way the Romans tortured him to death. “Is this the reward of his Torah knowledge?

Moses asked. G-d answered: “Be silent, thus it arose in My thought“.

Before the event, assuming there is some warning, one must do everything possible to prevent tragedy. Once it has happened, through our spiritual “silence” we reach a special closeness to the Divine.

Rashi tells us that because Aaron was silent, he was rewarded by G-d speaking directly to him later in the Parshah.

However, this silence is only in terms of our intimate, personal relationship with G-d. In terms of our practical lives, even the worst and most horrific event is a call to action. It may be a call to do all one can to alleviate the suffering which has been caused. It may be a call to rebuild homes which have been lost. Or it may be a call to ‘rebuild’ in a more spiritual way.

The Jewish people have confronted a physical Holocaust ending sixty years ago and also various forms of spiritual damage through intermarriage and assimilation. How do we respond to this? Not through passive silence, however mystical that might be, but with supreme effort, action and joy, through which we try to help every Jew turn towards their Jewish heritage and rebuild Jewish family life and Jewish knowledge, round the globe.

Today, as Jews we also face onslaught in Israel and elsewhere through political action, through media attacks and also sickening violence.

Here not silence, but the right voice defending Israel’s right to exist is required: to exist healthily, with secure borders. So we see that in the case of any kind of tragedy, G-d forbid, there is a time for “silence” like that of Aaron. Yet there is also a call to respond, through action, love and determination, and thus to rebuild a shattered world. Through this we too, like Aaron, will merit Divine revelation. G-d will bring the Messiah, rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, and bring everlasting peace to the world.

Dr Tali Loewenthal, Shabbat Shalom

Dr. Tali Loewenthal is Lecturer in Jewish Spirituality at University College London, director of the Chabad Research Unit, and author of Communicating the Infinite: The Emergence of the Habad School..
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