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Shemini

“And Aaron was silent” Leviticus 10:3

    In a midrash after destroying the Temple, God is bereft (Lamentations Rabbah 1:1). But how should God mourn? He asks the ministering angels what a king of flesh and blood does when in mourning and they proceed to teach him the rituals of mourning. The penultimate expression of grief, the angels say, is that human beings sit in silence. So too God does likewise, “He sits alone in silence” (3:28).

    Professor David Stern describes this form of midrash as featuring imitatio hominis — God’s imitation of man. It is the reverse of imitation Dei (the imitation of God) in which human beings strive to imitate the qualities of God as the right way of life. Instead, here God learns from us and our outpouring of grief.

    God’s silence is a powerful demonstration of loss, whether personal or national. We are often silent, just as Aaron was silent when his sons died after offering strange fire. Words cease to have any function in explaining the world around us satisfactorily in light of death and loss. In the biblical book of Job, Job’s friends heap their words upon more words and yet fail miserably to comfort him.

    But from the book of Job we learn that there is another side to silence; God’s silence is deafening when we are confronted by loss. We wish an answer to the question “Why?” would be forthcoming. 

    But God is silent. God does not seem to speak to us. Elijah heard a thin, wispy, silent voice. We too hear silence, but the silence we hear does not bring the answers we want. This too is part of the rabbinic concern — how to cope with God’s silence. In the midrash from Lamentations, the silence is a hint towards hope, because it means God will eventually restore the people. But not so for so many who experience grief in all its forms.

    Grief is powerful and overwhelming. Sometimes out of the anger, blame, guilt, disbelief, we may reach a point of silence. Silence that may allow us to find a new space to weep and then to re-emerge from the loss and destruction. 

    Aaron’s silence, just two words of Hebrew, sweeps us into the psychological maelstrom of grief. We are held momentarily, as the power of our text once again overwhelms us. And then just as Aaron’s “normal” service resumes, the text continues and life picks up its rhythms again. 
     

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