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Parashat Shemini: The silent Scream

This week, we are confronted with a moment in Torah that is both painful and instructive. We read the story in parashat Shemini of Aaron’s two sons Nadav and Avihu. 

Our parashah begins with a description of Aaron and the priests tending to the sacrificial offerings commanded of them by God.  With great attention to detail, we read about the sin offering, the burnt offering, the meal offering, and the offering of well being: each offering a dramatic choreography of human and animal, of life and death; a biblical path to connection with God. 

And then, we read: 

“Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before יהוה alien fire, which had not been enjoined upon them.And fire came forth from יהוה and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of יהוה.”

Another offering— but this one is called “אֵ֣שׁ זָרָ֔ה”--- a foreign or alien fire. Torah is silent on what made the fire alien, but the consequence is severe and startling. 

Following the death of his two sons, we read:  וַיִּדֹּ֖ם אַהֲרֹֽן

Aaron was silent. 

Moses, his beloved older brother, appears to try to console and make meaning of Aaron's loss. Vayidom Aharon. But Aaron was silent.

What is one to make of his silence?

Why is he not screaming out with grief?

His life has literally gone up in flames.

Who could blame him for going silent?

Rolling back centuries, Vayidom Aharon -Rambam reads this to mean:And Aaron became silent. He writes,This means that he had cried aloud, and then he became silent.

It is not the silence of acceptance that other commentators like Rashi describe;

but a silence of struggle. It is a silence that attempts to understand the mysteries of God

the mysteries of life.

This kind of silence stands apart from other kinds of silence.

This is not a peaceful silence.

This is not a comfortable silence.

This is a silence that is pained and painful. 

This is a silence associated with mourning— a silence that is echoed by the prophet Ezekiel who later would describe the word of God that came to him after the death of his wife, saying “”He’anak dom” ​(similar to Vayidom)--  Be silent from groaning, or groan softly. 

I try to imagine Aaron’s face. This year, it's all too easy for my mind to create a picture;  the image of a man standing before the bodies of his two children is all too familiar, and too painful.

Like many of you, I have been simultaneously taken and terrified by the images coming out of Israel on October 7, and out of Gaza since then. Images of loss and tragedy beyond what my heart wants to comprehend. 

My mind often recalls a now infamous photo of current hostage Noa Argamani. It's forever seared into my brain. Noa, in a dark and colorful jacket, her face contorted in fear and terror. From the back of a motorcycle she turns back, reaches out to her boyfriend, screaming. 

I picture the image of Shiri Bibas, her two young children in her arms. My arms ache, imagining the adrenaline of that moment: remembering the feeling of holding a small child and a baby at the same time. Her face too, contorted in fear and terror. 

More recently, like a carousel of slides from a horror show, my mind flips through images of men and women in Gaza– hands raised skyward, standing amidst rubble. And because human suffering knows no boundaries or borders- those faces too, contorted in the same fear and terror. 

For us, viewers of a photograph, the moment is static, and therefore silent. Like Munch’s famous painting, the scream captured on those contorted faces in photographs makes no sound.  

But we can hear it. 

And perhaps, like babies who learn by imitating, it is time for us to echo those screams: to make them audible and 3D. 

I know how hard it feels right now. It feels that way to me too. 

I am reminded of an article I read a couple of years ago in O, Oprah’s magazine (no judgement) that really stuck with me. It was a sort of “Dear Abby” column, where people could write in to Laynie Dalfen, Oprah magazine’s “in house dream analyst”. 

The letter of that month’s column read: 

Dear Laynie, 

I dreamed that someone broke into my home. I tried to contact others, like the police, but my phone didn’t work. I screamed, but nobody heard me. The truth is, I shout a lot in my dreams, but no voice comes out. What does this mean? —Silent Voice

The reply: 

Dear Silent Voice,

Your dream is short yet repetitive. You try to communicate, but your phone doesn’t work. Then you scream, but no one hears you. Finally, you share that you shout a lot in your dreams, but no voice comes out.

Your dream is screaming that you are silent! The repetition, not just within this dream but in many others, is confronting you with a feeling that you cannot speak or communicate. Because you just had another dream of this type, ask yourself: What specific waking situation triggered this dream today?

I wish only that this dream expert had offered some translatable wisdom for this moment.  In some ways, the one thing that we share in common with those with whom we disagree right now is that feeling that our screams are silent.  The metaphor of that nightmarish dream in which you scream but no sound comes out is apt— and is shared across the many things that divide us right now. 

In December, the New York Times published investigation titled "'Screams Without Words': How Hamas Weaponized Sexual Violence on Oct. 7" describing how rape and sexual violence were weaponized on October 7th. 

Just a few weeks before that, a man named Naan Kamli, a humanitarian aid worker for Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) wrote a piece called “A Story Behind Every Silent Scream”,  which begins: “The world spins, seemingly oblivious to the silent screams of millions caught in the cruel grasp of humanitarian crises.” He goes on to describe the humanitarian crises that degrade the human condition across the globe; not only in Gaza, but in places like Sudan, Libya, Syria and Yemen as well. 

Truly, suffering knows no borders.

The families of the hostages.

The families of starving Gazans.

The families of the more than 600 IDF soldiers killed since October 7th. 

The families of the 7 World Central Kitchen aid workers killed this week.

Everyone is screaming. 

They are screaming to the heavens, they are screaming in the streets, and like Moses’ going to Pharaoh only to encounter his hardened heart, those who are screaming and begging for change are met with more violence, and more suffering at the hands of those in positions of leadership who care more for their own political solvency more than anything else. 

If there is silence, it’s because we have screamed our throats raw, losing our voices, even as our faces bear the fault lines of our worry and our pain. 

I go back to the image of Aaron, standing bereft in front of the bodies of his sons, imagining him standing there, numb to the words of comfort his brother Moses offers to him.  His silence is instructive to us, and perhaps, gives us a small nechemta, a note of comfort, on which we might find a place to rest this Shabbat. 

With the death of his sons, Aaron’s silence is the silence of one in mourning. 

Many in our world are in mourning right now, and yet, at any moment, a laying down of arms, a mutual agreement to end this war could bring people home to their loved ones, and could prevent further loss of innocent life. 

The opposite of silence is speaking out— crying out loud, and mightily. 

I am reminded of words attributed to the prophet Isaiah, words that we lift up each year on Yom Kippur. Seeing the people as they are— fallible, prone to falling short of all that God requires of them, Isaiah says:  “Cry aloud, do not hold back; Lift up your voice like a trumpet.” (Isaiah 58:1)

He goes on to remind them of the true meaning of their peoplehood, and of their covenant with God. He speaks in his time in the context of a fast day, but his words call out to me in this moment— what is any of this for, if not, as Isaiah says: 

To unlock fetters of wickedness,

And untie the cords of the yoke

To let the oppressed go free;

To break off every yoke.

[to] share your bread with the hungry,

And to take the wretched poor into your home;

When you see the naked, to clothe them,

And not to ignore your own kin.

Somehow- we have to be able and willing to say it all: 

To say, just as Chef Jose Andres said in his stunning op-ed this week, that we too “know that food is not a weapon of war.” To say that we know that it is upon us to ensure that we fulfill that most basic obligation to prevent starvation, and further suffering. 

To say that we know it is upon us to unlock the fetters of wickedness. To stand in solidarity with the tens of thousands of people across Israel who have taken to the streets over these last months, screaming for change, calling out the true wickedness of those who claim to lead. To stand in solidarity especially with those who see that our ability to live in peace is intertwined.

And, crucially, to say that kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh, all of Israel is responsible for one another; Isaiah reminds us not to ignore our own kin. To say that it is still upon us to keep the names of those 134 hostages who remain in captivity for 6 months on our lips— to continue to shout mightily for their release. 

I think we can do it all. I think we can say it, we can shout it, we can act as an amplifier for others who are saying it too: but we can only do that if we believe that another way is possible. 

My hope and prayer on this Shabbat is that these hours of rest will offer us a glimpse of that other way: a world in which rest, safety, nourishment, freedom, and peace are possible. 

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