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Parashat Shemini: Silence

What is silence? What does it mean to be silent? When is it needed? Have there been times in your life when you craved silence, needed it? I believe there are times when we need to make noise, stand up, stand out and speak out. Times we need to learn through speaking and asking questions, by engaging others through noise. But, there are also times for silence. Times we need to learn through silence, by listening and taking in the details that surround us, by opening ourselves to others. When we are too loud, when we are so loud we no longer listen, when we are no longer open to learning about the full story, then we have lost something elemental to understanding humanity. Then we have lost something elemental to our partnership with G-d in caring for the world. There is a quiet strength and power in silence.

In this week’s Torah portion, Shemini, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu are consumed by G-d’s fire. At the beginning of Shemini, G-d gives very specific instructions about the exact offerings He wants from the Israelites, before He will show Himself to them. Then G-d shows Himself by consuming their burnt offerings through fire. Right after, Nadav and Avihu decide without any instruction to approach G-d with their own strange fire, which ultimately leads to their death. Killed by fire before G-d. They did not listen, and were killed for their actions. Directly after their deaths Moses approaches Aaron, "This is what the Lord spoke, [when He said], 'I will be sanctified through those near to Me, and before all the people I will be glorified.' " And Aaron was silent (Leviticus 10:3).” There are a lot of pieces to parse in this tragic story, however I want to focus on Aaron’s silence. At a time of profound loss, with this seemingly odd response from G-d, Aaron chooses to be silent. Aaron doesn’t scream, shout, or cry in mourning or in anger, or turn away from G-d, but is silent. Aaron’s silence is profound. What does his silence mean? Perhaps we can learn from his silence. Commentators have been trying to make sense of it for centuries. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (great 18th century Hasidic rabbi) explains Aaron’s silence with this lesson, “In youth, one learns to talk; in maturity, one learns to be silent. This is man’s problem: that he learns to talk before he learns to be silent.” In this moment Aaron needed silence, maybe to grieve, maybe to understand what happened, or maybe both. There are times in life when we just need silence to be, to understand, to live. There is maturity and wisdom in knowing when to be silent.

At your Shabbat table, think about the power of silence. Think about the silence or lack of silence in your life. Know there is a time for speaking up and standing out, as well as time for being silent and listening. There is power in knowing the difference. There is power in being able to listen to the full story before solidifying your opinion. There is power in the deep understanding of others. That is what our world needs. We need to remember how to be silent.

Shabbat Shalom!

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