Thursday, 04 Apr 2024

Written by Jennifer Verson, LBC rabbinical student

Reconsidering Silence

Turn it over, and [again] turn it over, for all is therein. And look into it; And become gray and old therein (Pirkei Avot 5:22)

It is difficult to find the words to recap the episode in Sh’mini when Aaron’s sons are struck down after  ‘they offered before GOD alien fire—vayyakrivu lifnei adonai esh zarah’ (Lev. 10:1-2). Moses attempts to console Aaron with words:

“Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the Lord meant when He said: Through those who are near to Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified’” (Lev. 10:3).

But, Va yidom Aharon – Aaron was silent. Aaron’s silence according to Rashi is a sign of his great faith for which he is rewarded

From where is it derived that he was rewarded for his silence? It is because he was privileged and the divine speech was directed to him alone, as it is stated: “The Lord spoke to Aaron.” (Leviticus Rabbah 12:12)

In turning over this upsetting moment in this week’s parashah, I have been considering the role of rabbis and communal leaders in consoling communities and particularly bereaved parents. Aaron’s silence is considered by many to be a manifestation of his unimaginable grief as his sons Nadav and Avihu are suddenly struck down. Some commentators consider Aaron’s silence as a rebuke to Moses for offering a theological explanation at a time when Aaron is suddenly bereaved (Held, Shai. The Heart of Torah, Volume 2 : Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion: Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, Jewish Publication Society, 2017).

One way to understand this silence is that Aaron is being left without words from shock and grief. Rabbi Angela Buchdahl’s words Ein Milim echo in my head. In her address from Central Synagogue in New York City on October 13, 2023 she grapples with silence as speechlessness:

Never before have I felt how important words are for creating realities.
And how deafening silence can feel, in the face of an atrocity […]

Ein Milim. There are no words.

But in the absence of words, we turn to each other.
And as we create anew, we turn to the prayers of our people
that have given us language when we cannot find our own.

Rabbi Buchdahl’s words enable a turning from the deafening silence of shock and grief to prayer. I turn Va yidom Aharon over and over to consider another side of silence being prayer. The rabbis teach (Brachot 31a) that the silent recitation of the Amidah follows the model of Hannah who in I Samuel 1:13 pours out her heart in prayer in her despair and desire to conceive a child:

Furthermore, I might have thought that one may make his voice heard in his Amidah prayer; but [quietness] was modelled by Hannah in her prayer, as it is stated: “And Hannah spoke in her heart, only her lips moved and her voice could not be heard”

The nature of Hannah’s devotion was initially taken by Eli to be drunkeness. This presumption can be seen as one way that people react with fear and confusion when they encounter silence and silent prayer. Why are we afraid of silence? Rabbi Elaina Rothman writes that  Jewish prayer spaces are often conceived of as noisy places with ‘words and music, people coming and going’. She likens the nature of the prayer service to a seashore with crashing waves, ‘The service, the peripheral noise is the breakers on the shore, beyond is a sea of silence which only we individually can reach but we must go through the surf to get there and if we do get to the silence beyond we will find that it is infinite, deep – a place where we might meet God’. (Forms of Prayer, 2008. p. 597)

This image of moving through the violent crashing waves to a place of deep calm to meet God helps us to imagine Aaron’s response to the sudden death of his sons, a terrifying and chaotic moment.  We can imagine Aaron’s silence as filled with his whispers to God.

Silences leave space for an abundance of meanings and a range of emotions. Imagining Aaron’s silence as an echo of silent prayer in Jewish practice and tradition is a powerful kavannah , sacred intention, to bring to our own silent prayers. Silence and prayer mean different things to different people at different times; whether we whisper quietly for strength and courage, we meet God or we meet ourselves, Sh’mini becomes an invitation to engage in the crashing waves and deep calms of Jewish communal liturgy and to experience it at times of joy as well as times of grief and despair.


Jennifer Verson, LBC rabbinical student


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.