Something shocking happens after the first priests, Aaron and his four sons, consecrate the new altar in this week’s Torah portion, Shemini (“Eighth”).1
Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aaron, each took his fire-pan and he put embers on it and he placed incense on it. And they brought alien fire in front of God, which [God] had not commanded them [to do]. And fire went out from before God, and it devoured them, and they died in front of God. Then Moses said to Aaron: “It is what God spoke, saying: Through those close to me, I will be proven holy; and in the presence of all the people I will be glorified.” And Aaron, vayidom. (Leviticus/Vayikra 10:1-3)
vayidom (וַיִּדֺּם) = he was silent, he became quiet; he was motionless. (A form of the verb damam, דָּמַם = was silent, quiet, still, motionless.2)
Why do Aaron’s two older sons bring unauthorized incense into the new tent-sanctuary? Why did Moses tell Aaron, who has just watched his sons die, that God said, “Through those close to me, I will be proven holy”? Why is Aaron is silent and still?
I have offered some speculations in previous blog posts. (See Shemini: Fire Meets Fire and Shemini: Mourning in Silence.) This year I wondered why Aaron’s silence continues beyond the initial shock of the catastrophe. Does guilt tie his tongue? Is he too exhausted or frightened to make a move, except to obey an order? Or is it possible that he has a moment of enlightenment?
- After the first shock, Aaron might be unable to move or make a noise because he is overwhelmed by guilt. Maybe he set a bad example when he made an alien idol, the golden calf. Maybe he should have stopped Nadav and Avihu the instant when they filled their fire-pans. Maybe God is punishing him for doing the wrong thing.
- After the first shock, he might remain silent at some signal from his brother Moses. As soon as Moses has arranged for Aaron’s cousins to remove the bodies, he orders Aaron and his two surviving sons to refrain from mourning.3 Aaron obediently remains silent until a question comes up about an animal offering; then he has recovered enough to take initiative again.4
- After the first shock, Aaron might realize that no one is safe, not even Moses’ family. He did not survive the episode of the golden calf because he was Moses’ brother, but merely because God had another plan. God chose all four of his sons to serve as priests, then killed two of them on their first day of service. This is life, and anything can happen. In a moment of non-attachment, Aaron waits quietly for whatever happens next.
All three of these attitudes can be expressed with silence, as we see in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Psalm 131.
Jeremiah and Guilt
In the book of Jeremiah, God declares through the prophet that all the people of Jerusalem will die because they are guilty of persistent wrongdoing. At one point, Jeremiah interrupts:
Why are we sitting here?
Let us gather and enter fortified towns, venidmah there.
For God, our God, hadimanu,
And has made us drink venom,
Because we offended God. (Jeremiah 8:14)
venidmah (וְנִדְּמָה) = and we will be still and wait. (Another form of the verb damam.)
hadimanu (הֲדִמָּנוּ) = has silenced us. (Also a form of damam.)
Jeremiah repeatedly declares that the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem will succeed because God is punishing the people for their sins. They are guilty, so they must be silent.
Ezekiel and Obedience
Moses tells Aaron and his surviving sons that priests may not bare their heads or tear their clothing even if a close family member dies. All the other Israelites can wail and mourn, but not the holy priests.
Mourning is also silenced in the book of Ezekiel, a prophet from a family of priests (who would be priest himself if the Babylonians had not deported him from Jerusalem). Ezekiel reports that God told him:
Human, I am here taking away from you by pestilence what is precious in your eyes. And you may not beat the breast, nor wail, nor shed a tear. Groan in dom. You may not do mourning rites for the dead. You shall tie on your head-dress and put your sandals on your feet, and you may not cover your lips, and you may not eat the bread of other men. (Ezekiel 24:16-17)
dom (דֺּם) = silence. (From the verb damam.)
Ezekiel’s wife dies that night, and he obeys God’s orders. When the Jews in his community in Babylon ask him why he is not mourning, Ezekiel replies that this is how they should act when the temple in Jerusalem falls and the sons and daughters they left behind die by the sword. Like priests, they must not exhibit mourning even when God lets their beloved city and their children perish.
However, they must also remember their guilt.
… you shall not beat the breast and you shall not wail. But you shall rot in your crimes, and you shall moan, each man to his brother. (Ezekiel 24:23)5
Psalm 131 and Acceptance
After Nadav and Avihu die, Aaron is silent and motionless, a powerless man with nothing to do but wait.
Quiet acceptance is the theme of Psalm 131, a short poem translated here in full:
A song of ascents for David.
God, my heart is not haughty
And my eyes are not arrogant.
I have not gone after greatness
Or wonders too difficult for me.
I have found equilibrium vedomamti my soul.
Like a weaned child on its mother,
Like a weaned child is my soul.
Wait, Israel, for God
From now until forever. (Psalm 131:1-3)
vedomamti (וְדוֹמַמְתִּי) = and I have made quiet. (Also a form of the verb damam.)
The speaker is humble, not striving to achieve. He or she is weaned from attachment and dependence, and has found equilibrium6 and an inner state of peace and quiet. Such a person can wait patiently for God to manifest.
Does Aaron become a quiet and humble man after God devours his two older sons? Does he reach a state of peaceful non-attachment? Perhaps; when God says Aaron must die without entering the “promised land”, Aaron, unlike Moses, does not make a fuss.7
What would it take for your soul to become quiet and peaceful after a disaster?
- See my post Shemini: Prayer and Glory.
- Some translators distinguish between damam I, which refers to silence and stillness, damam II, which refers to quiet sobbing or murmuring, and damam III, which refers to being destroyed or perishing. I believe this distinction is unnecessary. A word indicating silence and stillness can also indicate a noise that is barely audible, like the “still, small voice” (demamah, דְּמָנָה) of God in 1 Kings 19:12. And every time a word with the root damam has been translated as being devastated or perishing, it appears in a poetic passage that easily accommodates a translation in terms of silencing or stopping all motion. (See Psalm 31:18 and Jeremiah 25:37, 48:2, 49:26 and 50:30, and 51:6.)
- Leviticus 10:5-6.
- Leviticus 10:16-20.
- The translation of וּנְמַקֺּתֶם בַּעֲוֹנֺתֵיכֶם as “and you shall rot in your crimes” comes from Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible, Vol. 2: Prophets, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2019.
- Shiviti (שִׁוִּתִי) = I have leveled, I have made even, I have equated. Therefore my translation here is “I found equilibrium”.
- Both men are doomed to die outside the “promised land” of Canaan in Numbers 20:12, although Moses is the one who shouts the words God finds offensive. Aaron quietly dies on Mt. Hor in Numbers 20:23-28. Moses complains about God’s decree in Deuteronomy 3:23-6.