Monday, February 16, 2015
“VAYIDOM AHARON” & THE SOUNDS OF SILENCE - COMMENTS OF BARUCH COHEN IN OBSERVANCE OF THE 11TH YAHRTZEIT OF HINDY COHEN
This week, on Friday Rosh Chodesh Adar, we will commemorate the 11th Yahrtzeit of Hindy. This week, we were blessed with a Mazal Tov of our daughter Tali’s engagement to Yechiel Hertz. The overlapping of these two events in our lives, caused me to reflect on the words of Shlomo Hamelech in Koheles [Ecclesiastes]: “Dor Holech, VeDor Ba” - A generation goes and a generation comes. VeZarach HaShemes, Uva Hashemesh - The sun rises and the sun sets. And I paraphrase: “To everything there is a season: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” This is that kind of week.
1. EIGHTH DAY
The Torah in Sefer Vayikra 9:1 reports the day that Aharon HaKohein’s 2 sons Nadav & Avihu died, that day was: “VaYehi Bayom HaShemini” "And it was on the eighth day..."
To which eighth day is the Torah referring? The Torah is discussing the "eighth day" after the previous seven, during which the Jewish people performed the Shivas Yimei Ha-Miluim - the Seven Days of Inauguration Offerings. It was a "Chanukas HaBayis" [inaugural dedication], so to speak, for the Mishkan [Tabernacle], with Moshe Rabbeinu acting as the Kohen Gadol [High Priest]. The "eighth day" referred to in the Pasuk was the day when Aharon took over from Moshe, and the Mishkan began functioning in its normal way with the Kohanim performing the services.
It is peculiar that the Torah refers to this occasion as the "eighth" day. It was really the "first" day. The first seven days were merely a dry-run rehearsal. Every day, they put up the Mishkan and then took it down, and the Shechina, the Divine Presence, did not rest within it. But this day, was the real "Day One" of the functioning of the Mishkan, when the Shechina came down from heaven, [9:23] yet the Torah insists on calling it the "eighth day". The Torah emphasizes the previous seven days nonetheless, even calling the whole Parsha "Shemini" (meaning eighth). What message is the Torah giving us?
2. IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN A DAY OF JOY
It should have been a day of joy. Klal Yisroel had completed the Mishkan. For seven days Moshe had made preparations for its consecration. Now on the eighth day – the first of Nissan, the service of the sanctuary was about to begin. The Gemorah in Megillah 10b says that it was in heaven the most joyous day since creation.
No doubt, Aharon HaKohein must have woken up that morning thinking, “This will be the best day ever. It simply can’t get any better.” It was opening day at the Mishkan. He and his sons would be installed as the Kohanim - Priests and would initiate the very first service in the history of this magnificent edifice. The nation was there, the elders were gathered, and with the encouragement of his younger brother Moshe, Aharon was ready to begin.
Can you imagine the pride that Aharon must have felt when he was appointed Kohein Gadol? Here he was, born and raised a slave in Egypt, yet he found himself appointed the highest religious authority of the Jewish people. And at the same time that Aharon was appointed Kohen Gadol his sons were appointed to the very important office of Kohanim to serve the Jewish people and to serve God. When Aharon woke up on the morning – on the eighth and final day of the inaugural ceremony–he probably told himself “it doesn’t get any better than this.”
It should have been a day of joy; and then tragedy struck. The two elder sons of Aharon “offered a strange fire, that had not been commanded,”. The fire from heaven that should have consumed the sacrifices consumed them as well. They died.
The Gemorah in Sanhedrin reports: “Shnei Chutin Shel Aish Yatzu MiBais Kodesh HaKadashim” two shafts of fire issued from the chamber of the Holy of Holies, “VeNechleku LeArba VeNichnisu BeChutmo Shel Zeh, Ushnayim BeChutmo Shel Zeh, VeSarpham” - and the flames divided into four, two entered the nostrils of Nadav’s nose and two entered into the nostrils of Avihu’s nose, and tragically burned them to death.
Aharon’s joy instantly incinerated and turned to mourning. It went up in flames, literally. Aharon then experienced the absolute worst nightmare of any parent – the loss of his children before his very eyes, and in front of the entire nation. What began as the best day of his life suddenly was transformed into the worst.
Most of could only imagine how we would respond at such a sight: unbearable pain, searing horror, grief, agony, screaming out in indescribable anguish. Maybe even anger.
How did Aharon react? Did he scream, did he sob uncontrollably? Did he challenge God and storm out of the Mishkan defiantly? No. In the case of Aharon, all it says is Vayidom Aharon, Aharon was silent, still.
The word used to describe his stillness is Vayidom. It is, for me, among the most powerful and compelling words in all of Torah. Four letters. Painfully short. Dramatically onomatopoetic. Vayidom. Three syllables ending with a slamming shut of your lips. Almost as if an action suggestive of the forcing of silence upon oneself. Vayidom.
Vayidom Aharon, “And Aharon was silent.” The man who had been Moshe’s spokesman could no longer speak. It was as if words turned to ash in his mouth.
3. WHAT COULD AHARON HAVE SAID?
Vayidom Aharon, “And Aharon was silent.” The Medrash says that this verse implies that Aharon really did have something to say, but that he held back. He became silent. What did Aharon want to say? The Medrash gives a very cryptic answer: He wanted to say “U’vayom Ha’shemini Yimol Besar Orlaso” "On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised." [Vayikra 12:13]
What is the meaning of this enigmatic Medrash? The Shemen HaTov answers by quoting a Gemarah [Niddah 31b]: The Gemarah asks why Milah [circumcision] takes place on the eighth day - why not circumcise the baby boy immediately at birth? The Gemarah answers that Milah occurs on the eighth day: “Shelo Yihu Kulam Semaichim VeAviv VeImo Atzavim” - so that we will not have a situation where everyone is happy and the parents of the child are sad.
The Gemora answers that when a woman has a male child, she becomes impure and forbidden to her husband for seven days. If the circumcision was performed on the seventh day, the guests would be rejoicing while the parents, the central figures at the celebration, would still be sad. On the eighth day, the mother has had the opportunity to immerse in a Mikvah and become permitted to her husband, allowing them to also enjoy the occasion.
Based on the Gemorah’s reasoning, we may explain that Aharon was the primary participant in the joy of the inauguration of the Mishkan, in which he served as Kohen Gadol. After seeing the lengths to which the Torah goes to ensure that the parents are able to be happy at their son’s circumcision, Aharon was bothered that he lost two of his children on the day which was supposed to be so dear to him.
The Shemen HaTov explains that Aharon could have argued with Hashem. "Granted my sons did something wrong, they deserved to be punished - but do not execute Your Judgment on them today, of all days! After all, we learn that Milah is done on the eighth day because You are sensitive not to place a damper on a joyous occasion." However, Aharon held his peace and kept quiet. "Vayidom Aharon" Aharon remained like a stone.
4. AHARON’S REWARD (A DEATH PENALTY MITZVAH?)
Rashi describes Aharon’s incredible reward for remaining silent and faithful in the face of profound adversity. Immediately after the Torah informs us of Aharon’s reaction, the Torah says that Hashem taught Aharon the law that a Kohein may not drink wine when he comes to perform the Avodah. Rashi explains that this was Aharon's reward for his silence. In other words, according to Rashi, HaKadosh Baruch Hu gave Aharon special Chizuk for his reaction to his sons' deaths by speaking to Aharon alone and not, as He usually did, by speaking to Moshe and Aharon together or to Moshe alone.
The question that arises, however, is that the special Mitzvah which Hashem teaches Aharon basically comes to warn the Kohein doing the Avodah that if he comes to the Bias HaMikdash after drinking wine, he will die! A Mitzvah with a death penalty as its punishment.
Is this the Chizuk that one gives to a person who has just lost two sons? "Be careful or else you and your other two sons will die too"? What is the meaning behind Rashi's comment that this special Mitzvah was Aharon's reward for his silence?
5. IRONICALLY, HASHEM TELLS MOSHE TO BE QUIET
The Gemorah Menachos 29b provides that when HaKadosh Baruch Hu showed Moshe the true greatness of R' Akiva, Moshe asked HaKadosh Baruch Hu, "If You have such a great person, why don't You give the Torah through him?" Hakadosh Baruch Hu responded, "Shtok, be silent!" [Shtok; Kach Alsah b'Machshavah l'Fanai]. Moshe continued, asking to see R' Akiva's reward for his Torah. HaKadosh Baruch Hu showed Moshe the markets of Rome, where R' Akiva's flesh was being weighed and sold. Moshe challenged, Zu Torah V' Zu Sechorah "This is the Torah and this is its reward?!" HaKadosh Baruch Hu again responded, "Shtok! This is what I have decided"
Moshe Rabbeinu was able to comprehend the word of Hashem face to face "B'aspaklarya Ha'Me'irah," with a clarity akin to a clear lens that allows bright light to shine through. What kind of response is "Shtok to such a great man with such great clarity into Hashem!"? How does that answer (silence) the question?
Rather, HaKadosh Baruch Hu was teaching Moshe - that there are things that one can understand only if one sees the entire picture. And this can only be done when one is silent... Because when one speaks, one concentrates only on what he's saying, ignoring the surroundings. Shtikah allows one to evaluate his surroundings and to see the entire picture.
R' Akiva teaches us this lesson in Pirkei Avos as well Seyag Lachochmah, Shtikah, Silence leads one to wisdom; Shtikah is a guarantee for Chochmah, because through Shtikah one is able to perceive the entire picture.
This was the greatness of Aharon's silence. His silence didn’t represent emotional coldness,
for according to the Ramban he certainly cried bitterly over the death of his two sons. Rather, Aharon had the Ma'alah (positive trait) of Shtikah, which let him see the entire picture, enabling him to accept the deaths of his sons with tranquility and love for Hashem.
One who has the quality of Shtikah can discover great Sodos (secrets), because the whole point
of a Sod is that it remains a Sod. Aharon's silence demonstrated his mastery of the trait of Shtikah, and thus, his unique ability to uncover Sodos.
As he began his career in the Bais HaMikdash, where he would be privy to the Sod of Creation and to all sorts of other Sodos, HaKadosh Baruch Hu warns him not to drink wine, because "Nichnas Yayin Yatza Sod, When wine comes in, secrets come out." According to the Klei Yakar, this commandment is not a warning that Aharon may die too, but rather an emphasis of Aharon's intimacy with Sod, an emphasis of Aharon's intimacy with Hashem.
We now understand how this Halacha served as a source of incredible Chizuk to Aharon HaKohein, essentially praising him as the paradigm of "Sod Hashem li'y'reiav, Hashem shares His secrets with those who fear Him" (Tehillim 25:14).
Hashem speaks directly and only to him, and says, "don't drink wine when you come close to Me", no mind-altering of any sorts, chemical or conceptual.
When you are so, so close, that agony and ecstasy fade away into the deeper silence, that’s where you'll find Me. That’s where you can maintain Yichud with me. That’s where you can experience that intimacy with Hashem.
6. PERHAPS BY BEING QUIET, AHARON WAS ACTUALLY SPEAKING VOLUMES. THE “SOUNDS OF SILENCE.”
Va’yidom Aharon, he fell silent, he was still. What was the nature of Aharon’s silence? After all, there are many different forms and causes of silence. There is the comforting and supportive silence of companionship. There is the awkward and uncomfortable silence between conversations. There is the peaceful and serene silence of a moment of tranquility. And there is the silence of shock, speechlessness, and astonishment.
The subject of deep silence is one that often makes people, particularly in our day and age, rather uncomfortable. Silence can be disconcerting. Many of us associate silence with awkward pauses in conversation. Many of us run from silence, because in total silence, we’re left with only our own thoughts and worries and insecurities nagging at us. For others among us, silence is the experience of sheer terror. Silence, particularly deep stillness, reminds some of us of death, of hopelessness and passivity, of the absence of life and possibility.
But there’s another aspect of stillness and silence that few of us have taken the time to consider: that when we welcome moments of stillness and silence into our experience fearlessly, it can be incredible, restorative, the very opposite of insecurity and fear, the very opposite of death’s finality.
Some of my most powerful and meaningful moments of healing after the tragedy of Hindy’s death came from friendship and love that was communicated - in silence. The embrace of a friend who cares. The hug. The grasping of a hand. The squeeze on my shoulder when I was losing it under my Tallis. The smile. The looking into the eyes of the other. An expression of caring and concern; a reaching out from the heart, a gesture of hope. It is the world of sacred connection. It is the world of silence.
You, my friends: it was your presence, your silence, your gentle eyes, that were the safest sanctuaries that my tormented soul could confide with. Even for just a moment, I was able to be myself, vulnerable and hurt, with you. My tragedy, as poorly expressed by my words, found no better rest than in your arms, in your easy eyes, and in your space.
After Hindy died, A friend in the Shul took me for a walk in Hancock Park every Shabbos morning where we just walked, without speaking. We walked a mile, then two, yet there were no words exchanged. Something beyond words kept us quiet because that was sacred space. There was something between, that words would only violate, if expressed. Our walks often changed me. The silence of a brother helping out a brother in pain, that consoled me.
I would like to suggest, that silence is not necessarily, the absence of words. Silence can happen when we catch our breath, in between speaking. Silence itself can be a form of crying out. Indeed, the Kotzker Rebbe described a certain type of silence that represents yelling quietly. Dovid Ha’Melech in Tehillim (65) tells God, Lecha Dumiya Tehila,“silence to you is praise.” Elsewhere, in Tehillim (62) he tells us: Ach El Elokim, Dumiyah Nafshi Mimenu Yeshuasi - “My soul waits in silence only for God; from Him comes my salvation.”
Sometimes more can be said with silence than could ever be articulated with words. It wasn’t that Aharon had nothing to say and therefore he was silent. Rather, he used a shattering and stunning silence to say so much about himself and about his relationship and faith in Hashem. In fact, the Rambam quotes a reading of the Targum Onkelos that translates the word “Vayidom” as U’shevach Aharon, and Aharon praised Hashem through his silence. Aharon used silence to make a statement of faith in reacting to a horrific tragedy.
7. WHAT IS THE MESSAGE OF VAYIDOM?
Curiously, the Torah does not say “Vayishtok” Aharon, the more conventional word used for silence, which may have been the more logical choice. Why does it use the term Va’yidom?
Perhaps we can draw insight from other instances where the word “Vayidom” is used.
During the Yomim Noraim, when we recite the Nesaneh Tokef: “Uvashofar Gadol Yitakah, V’kol Demam’mah Dakah Yishama” – the great shofar is sounded, and a whispered, small voice is heard.
The phrase “Demam’mah” as in V’kol Demam’mah Dakah comes from Sefer Melachim Aleph, the first book of Kings.
Eliyahu HaNavi, the prophet Elijah, who, during a time of great despondency journeyed to Mount Sinai, the very place where God thundered the Ten Commandments to all of Israel generations before, because Eliyahu wanted to hear the voice of God speaking to him personally. And the story describes how all these amazing forces of nature revealed themselves to Elijah: first, a great wind blasted the face of the mountain, shattering even the rocks on the cliffside. But, says the story, Lo BaRuach: God was not in the wind. Then, a great earthquake made the whole mountain tremble, but …Vlo B’ra’ash…God was not in the earthquake. Next a terrible fire swept everything into flames, but… Lo B’esh: God was not in the fire. And then finally, after all the fire and earth-shattering noise, Eliyahu HaNavi heard a Kol Demamah Dakah, a still, small voice. (1 Kings 19: 11-12) And in that still, small Voice, was God’s Presence.
Note that the Hebrew for ‘still small Voice:’ Kol Demamah Dakah — the same word Demamah/Domem: meaning absolute Silence and stillness, the same stillness that Aharon showed at the death of his sons.
8. BE'DAMAYIKH CHAYII
Perhaps we can say homilectically, that when we attend a Bris Milah and we chant the words of the Navi Yechezkiel (16:6): Vayomar Lach Bedamayich Chayi Vaomar Lach Bedamayich Chayai "Then I passed and I saw that you were rooted in your blood, and I said to you, 'by your blood shall you live'"
I always understood these words ‘Be'damayikh Chayii,’ to mean ‘by your blood shall you live,’ because of the bloody sacrifices the Jews have forced to make for our God and our faith, we merited the covenantal gift of eternal life.
But perhaps we can now view the clause differently. Now that we have suffered unspeakable tragedies it seems to me that Ezekiel's choice of word ‘Damayikh’ comes not from the Hebrew Dam, blood, but rather from the Hebrew Dom, silence, as in 'Vayidom Aharon’ – and Aharon was silent.
Perhaps it is because we held back from battering the gates of heaven with our cries, because we swallowed our sobs and continued to pray and continued to learn and to build and to plant, because we utilized our energies not to weep over our past losses but rather to recreate our lives, that we continue to live and even to flourish.
And perhaps this explains the genius of the Torah reporting the day of the death of Nadav & Avihu and Aahon’s response, “VaYehi Bayom HaShemini” "And it was on the eighth day..., making veiled reference to a Bris Milah; hence making reference to Vayomar Lach Bedamayich Chayi Vaomar Lach Bedamayich Chayai; shedding light into the Kol Demamah Dakah, and ultimately shedding light into the Vayidom Aharon.
Morai VeRabosai: it is in the silences between the notes, between the gasps of pain and anguish, between the noise we hear and the endless thoughts of our tormented minds, there, in those silent gaps, we can find the very powerful Voice of God! This was the Demamah, this was the silence, that Aharon showed us in his moment of tragedy. Hence the genius of the words Vayidom Aharon.
Without that still silence, the noise of this world can overwhelm us with grief and stress. That Kol Demamah Dakah lives within our very hearts. It’s there, in the silent spaces between our words, between the very thoughts we think in our heart of hearts. When we, can transcend our pain and emulate Aharon HaKohein and David Hamelech, like Eliyahu HaNavi and learn to listen to the stillness within, and reach down into our core to find ourselves, in that, we find the context, we find the meaning, and we find the strength, and even the joy to be able to face the fierce noise of life itself.
That Silent stillness is always there for us, it’s just beneath the surface, it’s waiting for us to listen.
Let’s listen for our own Kol Demamah Dakah, and may it give us the strength to face this world, and to transform this world from noise to music, and from tragedy to joy.
Perhaps one day, we will merit the fulfillment of David HaMelech’s phrase in of Tehillim: and no longer need to be silent, “Lema’an yizamercha kavod ‘V’lo Yidom,” in order that my soul sing praises to You, God, and will NOT be silent!
Bilah HaMoves Lanetzach, Umacha Hashem Elokim Dimah Meyal Kol Ponim - May He swallow up death forever; may Hashem wipe away tears from every face (Isaiah 25:8) T'hei Nishmasa Tzrurah B'tzror Ha'chaim.