Shemini- This Is Not the Time to Be Silent

In our sedra, at what is perhaps the climax of chanukat hamishkan, Aharon’s precious two older sons are killed by a heavenly fire, after they offer an “אש זרה” in the heichal. We’ve already discussed that this may have been a well-intentioned error, a drunken mistake, or Nadav and Avihu just being in the wrong place at the wrong time- let us now focus on the aftermath of the incident.
Moshe immediately steps in with words of comfort for his brother:

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל אַהֲרֹן הוּא אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְהוָה לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ וְעַל פְּנֵי כָל הָעָם אֶכָּבֵד
And Moshe said to Aharon: This is what Hashem has said; I sanctify them by bringing them closer, and through this, bring honor to myself before the entire nation. (Vayikra 10:4)

Rashi, elaborating on the p’shat interpretation of this passuk, explains that Moshe was trying to bring nechama to Aharon by explaining that Hashem brought honor to his family by killing Nadav and Avihu, that He wanted them close because they were great tzadikim and they were used as an extremely effective example of the price of entering the Kodesh in the wrong circumstances (Rashi was of the school of thought that Aharon’s sons had entered the heichal drunk).

How does Aharon respond to this true, if maybe tough love, explanation?

וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן
And Aharon was silent.

Rashi and many other mefarashim read this to Aharon’s credit- that, in his silence, he accepted this difficult explanation for the necessity of his son’s tragic and sudden death. Otherwise, why would the passuk have mentioned Aharon’s silence? Usually, silence is something taken for granted and not elaborated in the text of Torah. The words “וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן” are explicitly mentioned here to show that Aharon took in the pain of these developments, and moved on- he truly understood why it had happened.

I believe that there may be a deeper explanation for why the pesukim explicitly mention Aharon’s silence.

When Moshe speaks these words of nechama to his brother, he used an ancient variation of cliched wishes of comfort that all of us have heard at trying times in our lives. Whether it be the death of a loved one, the unpleasantness of having difficulty finding a spouse, the immeasurable pain of a couple unable bear children, a family facing illness and financial difficulties, one is inevitably always told the same thing: G-d is putting you through these challenges because He loves the sound of your tefilot and wants to hear them some more. Hashem took your father away all too soon because he was such a holy person that he had already fulfilled his purpose in life. Your three families suffered the terrible loss of the kidnapping and brutal murder of your sons by by Muslim terrorists, because Hashem needed Am Yisrael to be more united during this difficult time- “בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ וְעַל פְּנֵי כָל הָעָם אֶכָּבֵד,” in other words.

This is perhaps one of the most difficult things in the world to be told, especially by another person- that your terrible pain, the difficult loss is somehow all right, because it fulfills some greater purpose in the world. “No!” you want to scream back, “I don’t want to be brought closer to Hashem! I want my father back, I want to get married, I want to have a child, we want Naftali, Eyal and Gil-Ad back, I want to get through this crisis.” These sagely words of comfort effectively do more harm than help, as they naturally distance the one who is suffering from comfort by somehow justifying their experiences. Oftentimes, it is simply better not to say anything at all.

I believe this could explain why the pesukim so insistently mention Aharon’s silence in the face of Moshe’s well-meant, if perhaps insensitive, divrei nechama. As Rashi’s commentary explains, the words “וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן” reflect very well on Aharon’s character, but perhaps for a different reason. In response to a justification for the death of nearly half of his family, Aharon was silent- many of us, in his place, may have screamed back at the Jewish leader, but not Aharon. He was able to accept this difficult decree and even more difficult explanation in silence, supressing any natural anger that may have come from this seeming insensitivity.

We can learn something else from Aharon’s silence as well. The first Kohen Gadol, a tremendous individual on many levels, was especially well-known for his reputation as an “אוהב שלום ורודף שלום.” He was an expert in judging others favorably and making the best out of any difficult situation. If he, when faced with the tough-love “בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ וְעַל פְּנֵי כָל הָעָם אֶכָּבֵד” could only muster a neutral silence, then imagine how much he must have been hurting on the inside. Imagine how any of us, who are not on his extremely high level, would react to such a difficult perspective.

This is an extremely important lesson to each and every one of us in all of our relationships. As we try to comfort those in pain, it is very easy for us, not walking in their shoes, to see the silver lining of their challenges. However, as we’ve seen here, it is almost never productive to tell our friends and family who are suffering what good can come from their pain. Let each and every one of us learn from the lesson of Aharon and work more to be more careful and sensitive to other’s difficulties, and, when necessary, let us follow his example of keeping quiet when nothing good will come from speaking, of “וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן.”