Shemini: Silence

This week, I received a wonderful dvar Torah on Shemini, and decided to share it with you. The Orot Center (Orot means “light”) is a wonderful new adult Jewish learning center, with a unique approach to learning. I’ve been studying for about 10 years with one of the founders, Jane Shapiro, and this piece is written by Rebecca Minkus Lieberman, another founder. Rebecca and Jane are remarkable thinkers, leaders, and teachers.  I hope you enjoy Rebecca’s take on one part of Shemini, when Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu die suddenly in the Tabernacle. Aaron’s response is….well, read on:

As I have gotten older, I have found myself craving – needing – more silence in my days.  When my children were younger and I was at home with them, I often yearned for breaks from the constant engagement and management of their needs, pains, demands. But I don’t think that it was silence that I needed then. Just brief respites, distractions from the full-time work of being ‘on’ with them and their urgent, noisy, needy lives. But now, I know that I need periods of silence each day. I am not speaking of meditation per se, but just silence. A cessation of the doing, the talking, the noise, the ever-growing chatter of matters that need attention and tending. On those days when I forget or neglect to find moments of silence, I’m guaranteed to be more snippy, less patient, less compassionate, less able to care for, attune to, and do for others.

I have found silence to be the simplest, yet most radical tool of opening my heart. Life-giving, actually. One I try to safeguard.

 In this week’s parasha, Shemini, we encounter the painful episode of the seemingly inexplicable killing of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. After the careful construction of the sacrificial system with all of its detailed laws and parameters, these two young men offer their own “esh zarah” – an ‘alien fire’ – an offering that seemed to be spontaneous, outside of the prescribed system of required and regulated offerings to God:

“And Nadab and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. 2 And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.”

 Every year, when we come to this parasha, this episode stops us short and raises so many difficult theological questions that plague our senses of morality and compassion.But Aaron’s response to the tragic death of his children in chapter 10, verse 3 is what I want to explore:

 “And Aaron was silent”

 The Torah does not often name peoples’ silence. Its explicit mention here is startling and important. And silence in the face of this horrible loss does not feel unusual. How else would one react to such unexpected pain and grief than with empty speechlessness? Words are inadequate at such a moment.

 The Hasidic Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Ressler ( 1740 – 1806) invites us to explore the silence of Aaron more deeply:

 “There are four levels of existence: the inanimate (domem), the vegetative, the animal, and the verbal (human).  Sometimes a person has to be on the inanimate level, as in “May my self be as dust” (Berachot 17a). Thus you do not feel the pain that another is causing you, or you do not question God’s actions… This is the sense of Aaron was silent – he brought himself to the inanimate state.

Rashi says that he received a reward for his silence: the Divine word chose to speak to him directly. By lowering himself from the verbal to the inanimate level, he allowed the silent shechinah to rise up to the level of speech.”

 This silent state – domem – that Aaron moved into was the base and foundation of his being, a return to his most elemental state, one before speech enters into one’s way of living. He contracted and retreated to this place, and as a result, his silence was ‘rewarded’: it opened a channel to the Divine. His stepping away from the world of speech allowed for God to step closer towards him. The silence created a pathway to be unlocked between Aaron and the Divine.

 In the Quaker tradition, silence is a prized and usual form of sacred coming-together.  And Heather McRae-Woolf, educator and writer, writes of her experience with the sacred silence of her Quaker practice:

 As a child in Quaker Meeting, I understood that we would sit together in silence and wait. We wait for a sense of the spirit that unites us. Some of us wait for more direct messages from God, while others simply wait for calm…But a silence where you interact with your thoughts is also a sacred act, a way of owning your interior being. Sometimes you need to wade through your thoughts in order to let them settle. My presence to myself, in all its detail, gives me a platform to recognize a unifying divinity, sometimes contained in mundane messages from other people…

We are all focused on becoming present to ourselves so that we can become present to others. Our daily world is a noisy, noisy place. There are times, when life hands us loss and pain, that we are plunged into places of unexpected silence, like Aaron – muted by sorrow and the inexplicable in human life. And there are times when we can intentionally turn towards silence. Make a permanent seat for it at our table. Spread its cloth over the movement of our lives. And perhaps it will unlock something new and unexpected in our hearts. Maybe it will allow us to see and feel in textures we had not known possible.

 Gunilla Norris, poet
 Within each of us there is a silence

—a silence as vast as a universe.

We are afraid of it…and we long for it.

When we experience that silence, we remember

who we are: creatures of the stars, created

from the cooling of this planet, created

from dust and gas, created

from the elements, created

from time and space…created

from silence.

In our present culture,

silence is something like an endangered species…

an endangered fundamental.

The experience of silence is now so rare

that we must cultivate it and treasure it.

This is especially true for shared silence.

Sharing silence is, in fact, a political act.

When we can stand aside from the usual and

perceive the fundamental, change begins to happen.

Our lives align with deeper values

and the lives of others are touched and influenced.

Silence brings us back to basics, to our senses,

to our selves. It locates us. Without that return

we can go so far away from our true natures

that we end up, quite literally, beside ourselves.

We live blindly and act thoughtlessly.

We endanger the delicate balance which sustains

our lives, our communities, and our planet.

Each of us can make a difference.

Politicians and visionaries will not return us

to the sacredness of life.

That will be done by ordinary men and women

who together or alone can say,

“Remember to breathe, remember to feel,

remember to care,

let us do this for our children and ourselves

and our children’s children.

Let us practice for life’s sake.”

 Shabbat Shalom.

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