Standing in Silence

Parashat Shemini | April 18, 2015


Before I begin I’d like to try something.

…(silent pause)…

How long could we let that moment last? How long before that silence becomes uncomfortable? How long before that becomes too awkward for us to handle?

There’s a lot that we can talk about with regards to silence. What happens during our silence? What do we think about? Why is it sometimes acceptable, but sometimes uncomfortable? What are the sounds of silence?

A few of these questions, and many other ones, are addressed in our parsha this week – Shemini.

At the beginning of chapter 10 we read a surprising incident about Aaron’s children, Nadav and Avihu. They “each took (their) fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, אש זרה, which God had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord.” (Lev 10:1-2) So in other words, Nadav and Avihu brought an offering that had not been commanded and were killed because of it. God then explains this to Aaron telling him, “through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.” (Lev 10:3)

How does their father, how does Aaron react to this short explanation of his sons’ death? The Torah gives us just two words describing his response – וידם אהרון – And Aaron was silent.

There’s a lot of thought given to trying to explain Aaron’s reaction or lack thereof. Some say Aaron’s silence was his way of accepting God’s harsh punishment. Others say that Aaron was in shock, too stunned by the sudden loss of his children to do anything besides stand in silence. Yet I prefer a third explanation for Aaron’s silence. He did not stand in acceptance or in shock, but instead he was observing a moment of silence for his children. In the same way that we observe moments of silence today, rising to pay tribute to those who have gone before us, so too was Aaron standing in silence at the loss of his children.

Because of the way our calendar works out this year, we read this parsha at a very appropriate time, a time when there are many other moments of standing in silence.

This past Thursday, we observed Yom HaShoah, our day of remembrance for the Holocaust. Across Israel and around the world, people lit memorial candles to pay tribute to the 6 million Jews who were killed, and observed moments of silence to honor their memories.

Coming up this week, on Tuesday night and Wednesday, we will observe Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance for the fallen soldiers of Israel and victims of terrorism, Israel’s memorial day. Once again, across Israel and around the world, people will light memorial candles to pay tribute to the 23,000 people who were killed defending the state of Israel, and will observe two moments of silence in honor of their memories.

These two days that are separated by less than a week on the calendar, are quite similar in many ways. They each serve to memorialize the lives of numerous Jews who were killed. They each give us occasions during the year to share the memories of those who are no longer with us, and to honor those who came before us. They each present a solemn mood that is reflected across the country and our outlooks for those days. And of course they each have this moment of silence.

But they are also in many ways quite different. Yom HaShoah remembers the 6 million Jews who were killed out of a senseless hatred for the Jewish people.  When we observe the moment of silence on Yom HaShoah we stand silent, numb to the sheer magnitude of the tragedy. Even today when we learn about the Holocaust or visit a museum or memorial we are stunned and dumfounded. How could something like this have actually happened? How could people actually do something like this? How did no one stop this. To these questions, we have no answers. Only our stunned silence.

Yom HaZikaron though remembers the 23,000 people who were killed fighting in defense of something that they loved. It honors the people who made the ultimate sacrifice so that the State of Israel could continue to exist today. We remember, honor, and mourn those who have given their lives to defend and protect the Jewish state. When we stand in silence on Yom HaZikaron, we stand in quiet appreciation, giving thanks to those who sacrificed so that “we could be a free nation in our own land of Zion and Jerusalem.” להיות עם חופשי בארצנו, ארץ ציון וירושלים.

Observing both of these days in Israel is truly a special experience. They are so widely marked and observed in so many ways across the country, that they are sometimes referred to as the Israeli secular High Holidays. I was lucky enough to experience these days for myself three years ago.

On Yom HaShoah, I stood on a busy street corner in Jerusalem, and watched as cars and busses came to a stop so that everyone could stand together for the moment of silence. The one photographer who worked to take pictures of this moment even received some dirty looks, because he was not observing this moment himself. You can find many videos like this on YouTube, where highways shutdown at the sound of the siren, so that everyone can pay their respects to those who were killed.

On Yom HaZikaron I stood at Har Hertzl, Israel’s National Cemetery, as it was filled beyond capacity, with people who had come to visit their loved ones who lost their lives fighting for the country. I stood with a few friends by the grave of Michael Levin, a friend of ours from our time in USY and from many summers at Camp Ramah in the Poconos. There we stood with thousands of other people in the cemetery, as the siren sounded for two minutes. Two minutes when no one spoke, no one moved, and no one thought of anything besides the people who had died for the Jewish state.

As special as this moment was, it is not the one that sticks with me most. That came later in the day, as Yom HaZikaron began to give way to Yom Haatzmeut, Israel’s Independence Day. With the sun setting and one day moving into the next, many communities hold special transition ceremonies and in them include special additions to the evening maariv service. One of these additions is Psalm 126, or as we know it better, שיר המעלות, the way we begin Birkat Hamazon on Shabbat and holidays.

Although we recite this Psalm frequently, we don’t often discuss its meaning. We won’t analyze the entire psalm now, but there is one line I do want to share. הַזֹּרְעִים בְּדִמְעָה בְּרִנָּה יִקְצֹרוּ: “May those who sowed in tears, reap in joy.” This line to me, describes exactly this moment. May all those who suffered, and shed tears, and lost a loved one, now come together in joy. We go from the sadness and solemnity of Yom HaZikaron, the the joy of Yom Haatzmeut with a single verse.

This verse, and this psalm, also speak to the connection of Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron and Yom Haatzmeut. The International Holocaust Remembrance Day is commemorated on January 27, the date of the liberation of Auschwitz. But our own calendar marks Yom HaShoah on a different day, the 27th of Nisan. Why? The date was chosen to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, when Jewish residents of Warsaw began to fight back against the Nazis. But the uprising lasted for the better part of a month. So why specifically this day?

Yom HaShoah is observed on this day, exactly one week before Yom HaZikaron and Yom Haatzmeut, so that these observances can be viewed and marked together. So that our message of Psalm 126 can continue to ring true. We all have sowed in tears. We all have gone out weeping. As a people we have lost loved ones, lost families, lost entire towns. We have lost art, we have lost culture, we have lost history. But even after our tremendous loss, we have been able to reap in joy and to come back with songs on our lips. Over the span of one week we go from marking our ultimate collective sorrow, to celebrating our ultimate collective joy.

This is the power of our standing in silence. This is the power of וידם אהרון. To at one moment remember our tragedy, but at another moment to remember our triumph. To take our stunned silence on Yom HaShoah and turn it into our silence of gratitude on Yom HaZikaron. To always be keep in mind that “those who sowed in tears” will one day “reap in joy.”

שִׁיר הַמַּעֲלוֹת בְּשׁוּב ה’ אֶת־שִׁיבַת צִיּוֹן הָיִינוּ כְּחֹלְמִים:

When the Lord brought back the exiles of Zion, we were like dreamers.

May we never forget our terrible tragedies. May we always be grateful for our wondrous achievements. May we, like Aharon, stand together in silence not out of shock, but out of strength. So that we may always be able to reap in our joys and to live our lives, like dreamers.


שִׁיר הַמַּעֲלוֹת בְּשׁוּב ה’ אֶת־שִׁיבַת צִיּוֹן הָיִינוּ כְּחֹלְמִים:

אָז יִמָּלֵא שְׂחוֹק פִּינוּ וּלְשׁוֹנֵנוּ רִנָּה אָז יֹאמְרוּ בַגּוֹיִם הִגְדִּיל ה’ לַעֲשׂוֹת עִם־אֵלֶּה:

הִגְדִּיל ה’ לַעֲשׂוֹת עִמָּנוּ הָיִינוּ שְׂמֵחִים:

שׁוּבָה ה’ אֶת־שְׁבִותֵנוּ [שְׁבִיתֵנוּ] כַּאֲפִיקִים בַּנֶּגֶב:

הַזֹּרְעִים בְּדִמְעָה בְּרִנָּה יִקְצֹרוּ:

הָלוֹךְ יֵלֵךְ | וּבָכֹה נֹשֵׂא מֶשֶׁךְ־הַזָּרַע בֹּא־יָבוֹא בְרִנָּה נֹשֵׂא אֲלֻמֹּתָיו:

A song of ascents. 

When the Lord brought back the exiles of Zion we were like people who dream. 

Then were our mouths filled with laughter, and our tounges with songs of joy. Then was it said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” 

The Lord did do great things for us and we rejoiced. 

Bring back our exiles, Lord, like streams in a dry land. 

May those who sowed in tears, reap in joy. 

May one who goes out weeping, carrying a bag of seed, come back with songs of joy, carrying his sheaves.