From silence to taking sides

Memories can paralyze us or prod us into movement. Memories can bring silence or song.

Remembering and remembering and remembering. Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and Yom Ha'atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) and Yom HaZikaron (Israel Memorial Day). Setting aside days for each, setting aside precious time to intentionally fill our minds and hearts to consider issues of sacrifice, good and evil, bravery and loss. Memories can paralyze us or prod us into movement. Memories can bring silence or song.

With Yom HaShoah, we remember unfathomable loss. It's no accident that writing and thinking about Jewish theology simply stalled out after the War -what could one possibly say about God at that point? Every theory, every theological explanation disintegrated along with eleven million people. It was a stunned communal silence. It took a half-century before Jewish theologians could begin speaking about God again.  With Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha-atzmaut  there is loss, but perhaps at least there is an understanding of the how and why. The valiant and the brave paved the way for a new Israel with their lives. Every time we gaze at the flag, just before we sing or applaud the heroes, the moment of silence is intertwined with a dose of pride and thanksgiving.

The High Priest, Aaron, knew what it was like to experience silence after loss. In exhilarating detail, we read of his ordination, when he was installed as High Priest. His four sons were ordained along with him in front of the entire people, with great pomp and ritual, beautiful clothes and somber offerings. And almost immediately, Aaron experienced the devastation of losing two of those sons to God's fire. Nadav and Avihu brought a "strange" fire into the Tabernacle, and were immediately consumed by fire.

"And Aaron was silent." (Lev 10:3)

The Hebrew is interesting. It's not the usual word for silence, sh-k-t  (as in "sheket b'vakasha!) The word here is "vayidom." It is a deeper, stunned, shocked, profound silence. Abarbanel  (15th c Spain/Italy) said he was "still as stone," as if he had ceased to be human for a moment. This is a scary kind of silence that, when experienced, one wonders how, or even if, one can climb out of it again.

What could Nadav and Avihu possibly have done to deserve this?  There are, of course, commentators who suggest everything from drunkenness to arrogance to disrespect or over-enthusiasm. We immediately wonder if the punishment fit the crime, because that's the way we make sense of the world when things go so very wrong. It didn't work in the aftermath of the Shoah, and it doesn't work here, either. Aaron was just silent. The prominent writer Blu Greenberg has written that the silence of the bereaved and those who comfort the bereaved, serves a purpose:  "to caution against offering a rationale for the decree of death. The deeper human religious response is to be silent, to live with the contradiction….sometimes the deepest response of love is to be silent." (Commentary on parashat Shemini, The Torah, A Women's Commentary, p. 633)

Moses, though mourning his nephews also, convinced Aaron to pick himself up and began acting like a Priest again, resuming his status as head of the community and carrying on. Following the silence came action.

There is a time for silence, to be sure; even the profound personal silence of vayidom. The suffering of others, however, requires that action isn't swallowed by silence. Not too long ago, we sat around a Seder table, and many of us thought of not only our own oppression in Egypt, but the existence of oppression and slavery around the world today. So many still live in their narrow places, their own mitzrayim, and we are compelled to alleviate suffering where we find it. Now we are counting the Omer, measuring our steps one by one on our way to Sinai. Literally, we must make each day count. Now is when our silence ends and we speak out. 

What pulls someone out of Vayidom?   As one whose experience of suffering and loss could have led him into that deep stone-like silence, but didn't, said, "I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." (Elie Wiesel)

That is how we bring meaning to the memories-by acting and speaking out. We must take sides. We must not let the silence win.

Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook. You can read more of her weekly Torah musings on her blog, Jewish Gems,

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