Leviticus When Aaron Had No Words
There is a story told in Avot D’Rabbi Natan that when the son of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai dies, his students come to comfort him. One by one, each of the students bring up a figure from the Torah who has also experienced the loss of a child. And each time, Yohanan ben Zakkai responds exactly the same way, saying: “Isn’t it enough that I have my own pain, and now you’re reminding me of their pain as well?”
After the first two students mention Adam and Job, the third student, Rabbi Yosei, says, “Aaron had two older sons and they both died on the same day, and he accepted comfort, as it says ‘And Aaron was silent,’ and silence always indicates comfort.”
Again, Yohanan replies, “Isn’t it enough that I have my own pain, and now you remind me of Aaron’s pain as well?”
In this week’s reading of Parashat Shemini, we are all reminded of the particular circumstances of Aaron’s loss:
Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the LORD alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the LORD and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord meant when God said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.” And Aaron was silent. (Vayikra 10:1-3)
Before the disaster of Aaron’s sons’ death, Moses ordains Aaron and his sons in a detailed ceremony involving animal slaughtering, oil anointing, blood smearing, and fire offerings. After a week in waiting, on the eighth day (bayom hashemini), Aaron and his sons themselves begin their holy service. They make offerings. The presence of God appears to the people. There is blessing, shouting, and falling on faces. It is a glorious, communal event.
And suddenly, everything changes. Nadav and Avihu do the wrong thing and they die. Aaron is thrust from the highest of spiritual highs to the lowest of lows. In an instant, he moves from High Priest performing holy ritual to parent witnessing the death of his children. Aaron, who has been known as the speaker—he was chosen to speak on Moses’ behalf before Pharaoh, the Egyptians, and the entire Israelite people—is now silent.
Ramban, writing in 13th century Spain, understands the Hebrew vayidom Aharon to mean that Aaron quieted after crying—a sign of Aaron’s having calmed down. The 16th century Italian commentator Sforno sees Aaron’s silence as proof of having comforted himself with the belief that his sons’ death sanctified God. Rabbi Yosei, too, in our aggada, understands that Aaron’s silence is an expression of his ability to move on. See—Aaron was able to accept consolation, Rabbi Yosei seems to say. Now why can’t you?
But grief is not always loud displays of emotion, nor is silence an indicator of inner peacefulness. How many times has grief shouted within me while I remained outwardly quiet? How often have I sat in silence with loved ones knowing that the grief was there, like seeds buried in hard winter earth, waiting for just the right moment to push forth into expression?
Rather than showing comfort, Aaron is simply without words. Speechless. It doesn’t matter what Moses says to him. There is no way to fully give voice to the pain of a parent losing two children. Aaron’s silence is a retreat into his own world of grief that is so big that, for a time, no sounds can emerge.
Throughout Aaron’s silence, Moses gives instructions to Aaron and the two remaining sons and he concludes by saying that “your kinsmen, all the house of Israel, shall bewail the burning.” (Vayikra 10:6) Since Aaron cannot cry (or mourn as he might want to), his family—the children of Israel—will cry for him. Aaron’s grief will be held by the entire Israelite people.
Conversely, when Yohanan’s students come to visit, it seems that they fail to comfort him because they themselves cannot stand to witness his grief. Their teacher’s behavior and obvious sadness makes them uncomfortable, so they use Torah to hide their own discomfort. How might Yohanan have responded if they had patiently been with the grief without needing to change it or fix it? What if the students had cried along with him, as the Israelites do for Aaron? What if they had let themselves feel—like Yohanan does—the pain of Adam, Job, Aaron, or King David?
The students try to lecture Yohanan’s grief out of him. They teach but they don’t empathize. Yohanan is finally comforted by his student Rabbi Elazar, who tells him a parable that offers a new lens through which to see his own loss. At the end of the story, Yohanan says: “Rabbi Elazar, my son, you have comforted me as people comfort.” That is, Elazar has been a person to Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai. He has been able to connect to the emotional landscape of being a parent in grief. He has validated Yohanan’s experience. He has been fully human.
This has been a difficult year, a year in which we have individually and collectively experienced so much loss. As we continue to reach out to comfort others, let us be feeling humans who let others feel. When we ourselves are enmeshed in grief, let us rely on our communities to cry with us. And when we’re feeling numb, may we look to the rich landscape of Torah to fill our dry wells of emotion. So that, like Aaron, like Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, we can hold and be held in all the joys and sorrows of our holy lives.