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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Shemini: The Perfect Parasha for these Challenging Times

by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz (Posted on April 4, 2024)
Topics: Sefer Vayikra, Shemini, Torah

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If you go to shul this weekend, listen to the Torah reading, and are left with an eerie feeling, you will be in good company.

Furthermore, if you didn’t know otherwise, you’d be excused for thinking that this week’s Torah portion was written by a contemporary theologian sometime after October seventh.

While a lot happens in this week’s parasha (it always does), the main theme is Job’esque. Like the book of Job, it too tells a tale that forces us to grapple with the theodicy question (“Why do bad things happen to good people?”), a question that has recently been weighing heavily on the minds of many of us.

Ever since the “dark Shabbat” last Simchat Torah, when Hamas terrorists brutally murdered more than one thousand Israelis, burned down several kibbutzim, and took more than two hundred hostages, many of us have been asking the theodicy question. We have been wondering: how does the believing person make theological sense of these atrocities? How could such evil befall so many innocent people? What explains the lack of intervention by a God Who we believe is kind, just, and benevolent? Why didn’t God thwart the evil?

All of these are hard questions that tug at our hearts and weigh heavily on our minds.

Sadly, though, we are not the first Jews to be baffled by this theological conundrum. Because of our persecution-pocked history, we have had to confront this issue time and again, resulting in a variety of possible answers to these vexing questions.

While there indeed are multiple suggested solutions, this week’s Torah portion’s “solution” is unique for two reasons: a) it is the FIRST time a Torah text addresses the issue up front, and b) its solution is unique: it addresses the challenge and helps us grapple with it, but it does not attempt to resolve it.

Here are the details.

On the happiest day of his life, the day he is inaugurated as the first high-priest to serve in the Beit Hamikdash, Aaron sees his sons die violently and prematurely. A heavenly fire consumes them. The emotional pain is compounded by the unbearable spiritual shock. The horror seems theologically indefensible.
Moshe attempts to resolve the theological dissonance by offering an explanation/justification for what occurred, but that boomerangs. Instead of engaging his brother, Aaron goes silent. As the Torah describes it, sparsely but emphatically: וידום אהרן, Aaron reacted to his brother with utter silence!
Aaron’s roaring silence seems to be a loud and bold refutation of Moses’s attempt to solve the theological challenge. One does not “make sense” of divine caprice,* Aaron seems to suggest. That would be theologically obscene. Instead of explaining why it happened, we suspend logic, cease talking, and silently embrace the only thing left for us after being spiritually and emotionally defeated. We offer to God our subservient capitulation.

This quietist stance might be the only option for the contemporary observant person when confronted with moments of unbearable religious dissonance, born as a result of encounters that are incompatible with our ethical compass and moral intuition. We neither justify the tragedy nor try to explain it. Instead, we embrace radical silence.

The reaction to tragedy, Aaron teaches us, is not logical; as a matter of fact, it is not even verbal. Sometimes the loudest and most articulate response to loss and devastation is to refrain from speech, since silence means so many more things than words. Speech is uni-vocal while silence is multi-vocal. When we express ourselves with words, we merely say that which we say; in silence we say multiple things simultaneously.

When we are silent we are:
and more and more!

Consequently, if you are left feeling that this week’s Torah portion has eerie contemporary resonance, you are absolutely right. Perhaps down the road there will come a time when “answers” to the troubling theological questions born as a result of the tragic events of October seventh will be forthcoming. For now, though, it would seem that the Aaron model is the most resonant one. At the moment, the best we can do is to indulge in a loud and deeply felt Aaron’esque roaring silence.

Shabbat shalom!


*I of course am using “caprice” descriptively, not, chas ve’shalom, judgmentally.

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