This week’s Torah portion, Shemini, (Lev. 9:1–11:47) tells the puzzling tragic story of the death of Nadav and Abihu, the two eldest sons of Aaron. It is the final day of the dedication of the Tabernacle, the day of the solemn ordination of Aaron and his sons as the priests of the Israelite people. Nadav and Abihu bring “strange fire” before God; an offering that God had not commanded, and fire came forth from the altar and consumed them, and they died before God. Moses then says to Aaron, “This is what God meant by saying, ‘Through those near to Me I show Myself holy and gain glory before all of the people’”. And Aaron was silent. (Lev. 10:1-3).
Moses seems to be saying that Nadav and Abihu died for the sake of God’s glory. Does that mean he thinks God punished them, or exalted them? It is hard to say what it means. And Aaron’s response neither affirms nor contests Moses’ declaration. He is simply silent.
The Jewish laws of mourning dictate that a visitor paying a condolence call should not speak to the mourners, not even words of greeting, until they speak first. This shows a great wisdom and insight into human behavior. There are times when no words are fitting or even possible. This time, when two young men are shockingly killed at a time that should have been one of sacred celebration, is one of them.
Author Blu Greenberg, in her commentary on this Torah portion in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, writes: “Aaron’s response is the profoundest human and religious response to the reality that there are times when good people die unjustly or are consumed in tragedies that seem to be arbitrary, shocking, without justification, and with nothing to ameliorate the pain and loss of those who love them…Sometimes the deepest response of love is to be silent”.