Torah | Sound of silence is a gift that lets us tune in to the Divine


Deuteronomy 9:1–11:47

Samuel I 20:18–42

At times, silence is just a sensory experience, one devoid of any sound. At other times, however, silence speaks louder than words. For a moment, consider Aaron’s silence in this week’s Torah portion.

As you might recall, Aaron turns silent upon hearing the tragic news of the sudden passing of his sons, Nadav and Avihu. The two were consumed by a fire after offering a “strange fire” before God (Leviticus 10:1-3). Aaron’s silence is piercing. It screams from the pages of our Torah. It is a silence that can be heard till this very day.

Perhaps this silence is especially amplified during a week that commemorates the Shoah. It is certainly not surprising that several rabbinic figures living in the previous century delved into Aaron’s silence and unpacked its meaning.

Writing before the Shoah, Rav Kook remarked that “there is a silence that is constructive … a silence emerging from the depths of the soul, an elevated silence through which entire worlds are built” (Tal Hermon). Rav Kook further explains that there are times for silence and times for speech, and that speaking at times that call for silence is a form of “destructive revolt against the reign of silence.” For Rav Kook, silence is not a form of passive submission. Instead, it is a fitting theological response to various experiences, from the tragic to the transcendent.

R. Moshe Tzvi Neria, founder of the Bnei Akiva religious Zionist youth movement in Israel, expands this idea. Quoting a famous Russian novelist (whom he does not name), Rav Neria notes that the secret of the Jewish people rests in our ability as a nation to hear with “a different ear” for thousands of years the silence of Job, the Bible’s paradigmatic figure of a person who accepts personal tragedy without complaint or lament (Ner La’maor, p. 256). Rav Neria further explains that Job’s silence is linked to Aaron’s own silence, and to that of Abraham, who obediently heeded God’s command to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac.

According to Rav Neria, years of encountering persecutions bequeathed our people a “different ear.” Our choice to not “talk back” to God in the face of personal or national tragedy came with an implicit refusal to accept easy answers, offer simple explanations or make quick theological accusations. As a result, this choice created space for a different kind of response. As a people we were forced to listen with “internal ears and a discerning heart.” In this long and trying process we came to learn that while God may not provide answers in this world, God is nevertheless present in our midst, listening along with us, as it were. In this sense, the gift of hearing is Divine. When we tune into the terrible silence of the bereaved, we learn to listen with God.

Rav Neria’s commentary takes one more critical step. Through a creative and forceful rereading, Rav Neria argues that Aaron never abandons his silence, but instead learns to use it as a basis for his religious service. Let’s take a closer look or, better yet, let’s tune in.

Once Aaron completes his initial stage of mourning — for mourning for one’s children never really is complete — he is invited back once again into the same sanctuary where his sons perished. God’s seemingly straightforward invitation — “With this shall Aaron come into the sanctuary” (Leviticus 16:3) — includes a grammatical ambiguity.

The words at its very beginning, “With this,” are left undefined. Read simply, they can mean “in this way” or “in this specific time” (see Rashi for example). Rav Neria, however, fills in the missing noun and reads the words as meaning “with your silence.” According to this reinterpretation, God himself sanctions Aaron’s silence. God demands that Aaron enter God’s sanctuary with it and insists therefore that Aaron never give up on the unanswerable questions, his pain and anguish, and the unbearable silence that only God can bear … or hear.

Sadly, at times silence is all we really have. As we mark the commemoration of the Shoah, may we make space for silence, and may that silence allow us and God to tune in once again to all that remains holy and divine.

Rabbi Yonatan Cohen is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley. He can be reached at [email protected]

Rabbi Yonatan Cohen

Rabbi Yonatan Cohen is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley. He can be reached at [email protected].