“Embracing Infinity” – Parashat Sh’mini
“Va-yehi ba-yom hash’mini…” It is on the eighth day that the dedication of the Mishkan, the desert Tabernacle, spoken into being by God’s desire to dwell amongst the Israelites and built with their heart-offerings, culminates in Aaron’s successful performance, for the first time, of his priestly service. After he performs all the offerings flawlessly, according to Divine direction, Aaron raises his hands to bless the people, and YHVH materializes as a density visible to all! Holy fire leaps forth to consume the offerings, a great joyous cry of relief rises from every throat and, as if with a single impulse, the whole people throw themselves upon the ground in awe.
Suddenly, in the midst of this ritual high drama, a shocking rupture occurs—Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s eldest sons, each place fire and incense upon their fire pans and bring “esh zara, strange fire,” before the altar. In an instant, they are consumed by the same miraculous Divine fire that, just moments before, had engulfed with favor their father’s offerings.
At this excruciating moment, Moses says to his brother, simply, “This is what God meant when saying, ‘Through those near to me will I be sanctified; before all the people will I be glorified.’ ” Aaron’s response? “Va-yidom Aharon, and Aaron was silent.” (Leviticus 10:3)
Rashi, the great 11th century Torah commentator, interprets Moses’ words as high praise for the spiritual attainments of Aaron’s sons. Moses is telling Aaron, Rashi posits, that it’s because of Nadav and Avihu’s “nearness” to God, their saintliness, that the final sanctification of the Mishkan has taken place through their deaths.
I want to hear the tone of Moses’ voice, to see his face. Have his eyes softened in empathy? Are they brimming with tears? Is he speaking gently, attempting to offer his brother some comfort in the face of unspeakable loss? Or is he impassive, majestic, still rapt with the elevated energy of ceremony, teaching his brother yet another lesson about the Torah order that is henceforth to govern Israel’s religious and communal life?
And what of Aaron’s silence? Does it signify, as the Biur (Naphtali Hirz Wessely, German, 18th c.) suggests, patience, resignation, and an inner peace that accepts his sons’ fate and receives with equanimity ol malkhut shamayim, heaven’s yoke? Or is Aaron’s a shocked, frozen, stunned silence? After all, God stayed Abraham’s hand when Isaac was upon the altar! Why now must these sons, these princes of the people, be sacrificed (drawn close), along with the bulls, rams, and goats?
Only once in my life have I experienced the sudden, shocking loss of someone with whom I was emotionally and spiritually bound up. It was not the loss of my child or close relative, but of my teacher, R. David World-Blank z”l, killed in a car crash at the age of 47. At the moment I received the news, it felt like being kicked in the gut and having my heart ripped open at the same time. I wanted to cry out, to writhe, but at the time, I was living in a shared household with people I didn’t know well, with whom I didn’t feel safe. So I kept silent as I tried to stay present and ride the powerful feelings and sensations of wrenching pain alternating with numbness and disbelief.
The psalmist cries out to God, “l’ma’an yizamerkha kavod v’lo yidom, Adonai elohai, l’olam odeka, So that my soul might sing Your glory and not be silent, YHVH, my God, I will forever thank you!” (Psalm 30:13) Here the quality of yidom is not a resigned or accepting silence, but a heavy-hearted silence that chokes off joyful song. Gratitude and praise, the psalmist suggests, can release the voice again, providing the antidote to this silence of despair.
But both the psalmist and Aaron know that this takes time. “Ba-erev yalin bekhi, v’la boker rinah, at night one lies down weeping, but with the dawn—joyful singing!” (Psalm 30:6) In the “dark night of the soul,” pain can be digested, and eventually transmuted into song. Aaron, ever more in touch with the human, fleshly realm than his God-centered brother, instructs Moses in this truth by refusing to eat the sin-offering within the sacred precinct on the same day that his sons have died. “Didn’t they, this very day, bring close their sin offering and their burnt offering before YHVH—and things like this befell me? Am I now to eat the sin-offering? Would YHVH approve?” (Leviticus 10:19)
Yom ha-sh’mini, the “eighth day,” takes us beyond the pale of Creation, the familiar rhythm of seven, and into the realm of the Infinite, where the mysteries of life and death, of joy and loss, of elation and heartbreak, flow into one another in a single song of simultaneous love and awe. It’s not an easy realm for most of us to inhabit.
When such ruptures, such losses occur in our own lives, may we be gentle with ourselves, honoring the nights of weeping, the days of silence, and taking the time, as Aaron teaches, to allow words of praise and thanksgiving and blessing to find their way through our shattered hearts and gradually back into our mouths, where they teach us, bit by bit, to embrace the Vastness, the infinity, for which we each are a vessel.