Sign In Forgot Password

From the Rabbi - Apr 4, 2024

Rabbi Chaitovsky

What should have been a high point of spiritual achievement for the Israelites became a moment of trauma and tragedy. In this week’s Torah portion, Aaron’s two children, Nadav and Avihu, caught up in the desire to serve God as only priests could, fill their sacrificial censers with ketoret-incense and approach the altar. They light the incense, but the fire, referred to as a “strange” fire, incinerates the two priests, killing them instantly. It seems that their act was unauthorized by God. They acted on their own and things literally backfired as a result.

There is an even greater mystery in the parsha – and that is Aaron’s reaction. It says “vayidom Aharon – and Aaron was silent.” How are we to understand his silence? Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a world-renowned trauma expert was discussing with colleagues a picture of a man’s brain that was taken using an fMRI, a machine which measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow in different brain regions. This particular image was taken while the man was having a flashback to a traumatic experience of being caught in the stairwell of the World Trade Center on 9/11.

At that moment, there was absolutely no brain activity in the part of the brain dedicated to language, known as Broca’s area. The memory of the trauma rendered him speechless. Only after therapy, where Dr. van der Kolk helped the man give words to the pain, did later images show brain activity in the language centers. Perhaps Aaron’s silence in our parsha was not a choice he consciously made but was a natural reaction to the overwhelming trauma of witnessing his two sons dying. Broca’s area in his brain was lifeless. He literally could not speak. There were no words.

Other commentators insist that Aaron consciously chose silence as a way to demonstrate that he accepted God’s decision and would not protest in any way. The Talmud praises Aaron for his “faithful” silence. Rabbi Shmuel Goldin agrees that Aaron chose silence, but adds a provocative twist. Moshe attempted to console Aaron by telling him that God is sanctified by those who are close to him, meaning that Nadav and Avihu were precious to God. It is then that the Torah tells us that Aaron was silent. Rabbi Goldin suggest that Aaron’s silence challenges Moshe’s words of comfort. “Moshe, there are times when words do not suffice, when they are, in fact, hurtful. I reject your attempt to explain the inexplicable. No words or comfort will assuage my heart’s deep pain. I am willing to accept God’s justice, but I know that I will never fully understand. For me, in the face of overwhelming loss there is only one meaningful response: silence.”

Different people will react differently to trauma. There is no one right way to cope. We cannot be sure what Aaron’s inner thoughts and emotions were. The possibilities suggested by our commentators model and validate various ways one can respond to tragedy. Rabbi Goldin cautions those reaching out to others to offer help to carefully weigh their words and actions. There are times when “silence is truly golden.”

Shabbat shalom…and as always, see you in shul!

Rabbi Chaitovky

ps – we hope you will make the extra effort to join us this shabbat to wish a very happy birthday to a very special lady, Eudice Lewkowitz.

Thu, May 23 2024 15 Iyyar 5784