Finding prayerful silence as sounds of war surround us


Shabbat HaChodesh

Leviticus 9:1-11:47

Exodus 12:1-20

Ezekiel 45:16-46:18

Amid the violent, incessant noise that surrounds us in these dark days, the verse that moves me most in this week's parashah is about silence. "Vayidom Aaron." "And Aaron was silent." (Lev. 10:3)

This striking description follows the brief story of Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, bringing "strange fire," an offering not commanded by God, on the altar. The text tells us, "Fire came forth from God and consumed them; they died before God" (10:2).

The commentators puzzle over what could possibly have been so sinful about their offering that it warranted punishment by death. Some commentators have suggested that their sin was arrogance, bringing their own offering without consulting with their elders or waiting for direction. Similarly, some suggest that the "strange fire" that they brought to the altar was the fire of their own ambition, rather than the fire of righteous piety. Others suggest that their sin was simply a lack of faith, believing that they needed to bring the fire with their own hands, rather than trust that what was needed would be provided.

Whatever their sin, the text's account of Aaron's response is striking. How often does the Torah take note of someone not saying something? Clearly, there was eloquence and meaning in Aaron's silence. We might well see his silence as an expression of anguished grief. How could words contain a parent's agony upon witnessing a child's death, at the hand of God? Some have suggested that Aaron's silence expresses his acceptance of the divine decree, or at least resignation in the face of his loss. Others have written that the text takes note of Aaron's silence in order to praise him for restraining his natural instinct to rage against God for taking his children.

All of that said, I wonder whether any verbal interpretation can fully capture the meaning of Aaron's silence. Perhaps we need to get very quiet in order to hear the meaning Aaron's silence may have for us at this time.

It is so difficult to find a moment of silence in these days. For a long, anguished time we waited in a collective vigil. Newscasters, politicians and pundits filled the airwaves with noise. When we would finally turn off the news, there was noise inside us — inner dialogues of fear, outrage, horror and hate. Sometimes, in rare moments of quiet, we felt the raw core of fear or pain, or, in a moment of silent prayer, touched a place of hope inside.

Then all quiet was broken as the bombs began to fall. More than ever, many of us feel drawn to listen to hours of analysis, as if hearing more facts will help us master the horror of what is happening. We may be unable to turn off the TV or put down the newspaper, on some level afraid of what we may encounter in our own inner quiet.

On some level we know that amid the sounds of war, there are many moments of silence like Aaron's. The silent moment when a pilot watches a bomb falling far below his plane. Families huddled together as missiles hit their land, hoping to live through the night unharmed.

Every day, the story of Aaron is re-enacted, as parents wait in torment for an ambulance to come, or wait for a doctor's report on their child's injuries. And soon, American parents will open their own front doors, silently taking in the sight of an official coming to bear bad news about their sons.

Times of war are filled with noise — the sounds of troop movements and bombs falling, the sounds of protest and outrage, the wailing cries of the bereaved and the frightened. Faithful people need to hear the silence beneath all of the noise as well, to hear the silent grief of parents, the silent fear of soldiers and civilians alike, to know our own silent places of pain and hope.

The story is told that Rabbi Lipman of Radomsk told the Kotzker Rebbe that greater still than the silence of Aaron was the speech of the psalmist. He quotes the verse, "That I might sing Your praise and not be silent" (Psalm 30:10, using the same word "velo yidom/ I shall not be silent" as "Vayidom/And Aaron was silent"). "Even in the midst of pain and sadness, the psalmist continued to sing God's praises unceasingly" (Itturei Torah vol. 4, p. 53).

As the sounds of war surround us, may we each find the times of prayerful silence that we need, and each discover our own way to continue to sanctify God's name in our lives.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at