Shemini: The Sound of Silence

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Mouth With Tape
26 Mar 2008

A silent response is not always heroic.

To wit, consider the following image (which does not require much imagination):

A mother, in her dual role as criminologist has determined which child has left his imprimatur and artistic know-how upon the living room walls. She begins to question the child. The young boy however, while not formally trained, seems to be an instinctive scholar of due process. He thus pleads the fifth – understanding that not always is candor the better part of valor.

Expedient quiet doth not dignity make! For silence to be an act of nobility there must be an alternate response.

In a poignant scene of Second Temple destruction, the Talmud evokes the praise of Hashem as mi kamocha ba’ilmim Hashem(1) – Who is like You amongst the mute ones o’ God? Hashem, the ultimate Power is praised for not responding to the profanity of Titus, when surely He could have. In an act of imitatio dei, Ben Zoma (Avos, 4:1) defines gibor (mighty), as the one who possesses the strength to refrain(2).

It was the best of times; the Shechina had just returned to the Jewish people. It was the worst of times; the beloved Aharon had suffered the loss of his two holy children, Nadav and Avihu. Vayidom Aharon. Aharon was silent. Rashi (10:3) teaches – kibeil sechar al shetikato. Aharon received reward for his silence.

But Why was Aharon’s silence an active one – what could Aharon have said?

A famous wondrous midrash (midrash pliah) serves to clarify but further confounds:

Mai hava lei l’meimar -uvayom hashemini yimol besar arlaso (Vayikra, 12:3). What could he have said? “And on the 8th day, you shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin”

Huh? This midrash appears to be a classic non-sequitur; what does circumcision have to do with the untimely death of Nadav and Avihu?

For a moment let us consider what actions may push away (docheh) Shabbos. Most famously, pikuach nefesh (saving a life) docheh Shabbos – but there is more. The Torah allows the community to “violate” Shabbos for the sake of sanctifying the new month, communal sacrifices and reaping the barley for the omer. Two basic categories emerge: communal needs and/or pikuach nefesh.

Milah, however appears to occupy a category of it own. It is neither an act of communal significance, nor does it seem like pikuach nefesh and yet it is from the midrash’s verse that the Talmud (Shabbos 132b) derives one may violate the Shabbos for the sake of performing milah. Why?

Perhaps the idea is something like this. Shabbos as a theme speaks of completion within the natural world. Milah as a motif evokes the notion of transcending this world. God gave us the raw material and it is our job, to refine, develop and grow beyond (3) (as painful as it might be). Ein mazal l’yisrael – A Jew is never consigned to fate; his life constantly beckons new worlds and hopes. Whereas for Thoreau, most people lead lives of quiet desperation; to Torah, Jews lead lives of quiet aspiration. More sharply formulated: milah docheh shabbos for just as pikuach nefesh pushes away Shabbos surely does pikuach neshama.

As an FFB (frum from birth) living in a BT (Ba’al Teshuva) neighborhood, I have been privileged to know people who have become the very personalities they swore up and down (and all around) they would never be. “Maybe Shabbos, but never family purity; maybe taharas hamishpacha but never minyan, etc.”; I can testify to the notion that one can transcend worlds within one’s lifetime while one’s potential for greatness is only limited by one’s vision.

Aharon could have asked a shtarke kasha (great question). “Hashem, yes my children were heilige tzaddikim. But was there no place for them to go? In Your Torah, You have written, uvayom hashemini yimol besar arlaso. Is growth not the raison d’etre of Judaism? Look what they could have been. Did they need to die to change their world? Why?”

Even as Aharon Hakohen knew that a Jew is commanded to desperately search to understand the Divine, our essential human logos must also know when to humbly and deferentially yield its turf to the Master of the Universe – one of life’s most critical and difficult lessons.

Good Shabbos, Asher Brander

1. Gittin 56b, An obvious play off the phrase mi kamocha ba’eilim Hashem – who amongst the mighty is like you, Hashem
2. To be sure, this needs qualification. Passivity and self-restraint are often confused.
3. See Tanchuma Tazria 7 for a beautiful expansion of this theme

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.